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Aoki's leaping catch thrills fans at Tokyo Dome

Special to MLB.com

TOKYO -- Besides being the only Major League player on Japan's roster for the World Baseball Classic, Norichika Aoki is one of the most experienced. Aoki is a player the others lean on. He's also one they can count on.

Aoki may not have been the biggest star in Japan's 11-6 win over Cuba on Tuesday night, but his contributions did not go unnoticed. It was Aoki's first-inning double that led to Japan taking an early lead, and it was his spectacular catch in center field in the top of the fourth inning that stopped a potential Cuba rally just before Japan took the lead for good.

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TOKYO -- Besides being the only Major League player on Japan's roster for the World Baseball Classic, Norichika Aoki is one of the most experienced. Aoki is a player the others lean on. He's also one they can count on.

Aoki may not have been the biggest star in Japan's 11-6 win over Cuba on Tuesday night, but his contributions did not go unnoticed. It was Aoki's first-inning double that led to Japan taking an early lead, and it was his spectacular catch in center field in the top of the fourth inning that stopped a potential Cuba rally just before Japan took the lead for good.

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"It was not only the hit and not only the play, but everything he did for us was so big," said third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda, whose four hits included a three-run home run. "He's such a big player for Japan."

Aoki, who went from the Mariners to the Astros on a waiver claim in November, arrived in Japan last week after participating in Spring Training with the Astros in Florida.

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

"About the jet lag, I'm almost OK," Aoki said with a smile the day before the tournament began.

While all the other Japanese Major Leaguers chose to remain with their big league team this spring, Aoki came to play in the World Baseball Classic again, after playing on the Japan teams that won the title in both 2006 and '09.

"Whatever advice I can give to anybody, I intend to do so," Aoki said.

Aoki's advice might be needed more as the tournament moves on. Tuesday's win was already a big one for Japan, given that Cuba was considered the other strong team in Pool B. The Japanese play Australia and China in their final two first-round games, and they will be heavy favorites in both games.

Japan will be happy to have Aoki, who batted third in manager Hiroki Kokubu's opening night lineup.

Aoki came up with two out and nobody on in the first inning and ripped a double to left off Cuba starter Noelvis Entenza. When Yoshitomo Tsutsugo followed with a line-drive single to right field, Japan had a 1-0 lead.

The first-inning hit was Aoki's only one Tuesday, although he was robbed of extra bases in the fourth inning when Cuban center fielder Roel Santos made a sliding catch in left-center field. Santos' catch was payback of a sort, because Aoki had robbed the Cubans of a big hit an inning earlier.

With one out and the score tied at 1-1 in the top of the fourth, Cuba first baseman William Saavedra rocketed a ball to deep center field. Aoki raced back and reached up for a backhand overhead catch that had the Tokyo Dome fans cheering loudly.

When the inning ended, Aoki's teammates lined up outside the dugout to greet and congratulate him.

They're happy to have him here, and not just because of one catch.

The World Baseball Classic runs through March 22. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Danny Knobler is a contributor to MLB.com.

Japan, Norichika Aoki