WBC: Japan 4, China 0

Japan started off the World Baseball Classic as expected, with a win over China. Back in 2006, Japan beat China 18-2 in a game that was called after 8 innings due to the mercy rule. This time, China was never really out of the game, and although they didn’t score a run, managed to hold Japan to just four.

Yu Darvish started for Japan and threw four no-hit innings, while walking one, facing the minimum number of batters and picking up the win. The loss went to China’s Li Chenhao, who gave up three runs in the bottom of the third. Yakult’s Norichika Aoki drove in Seibu’s Hiroyuki Nakajima with a single, while Yokohama’s Shuichi Murata brought Aoki home with a two run homer. Japan added another run in the sixth when China pitcher Sun Guoqiang balked with runners on first and third.

Pitchers Darvish, Wakui, Yamaguchi, Mahara and Fujikawa combined for the shutout, giving up a total of four hits.

While the pitching was more than enough to get the win, Japan’s show at the plate must be worrying for manager Tatsunori Hara. Japan managed only five hits against a team it spanked 18 runs out of just three years ago. And for all the fanfare surrounding Ichiro Suzuki (0 for 5) and the other starters from MLB (Jojima, Iwamura and Fukudome), none of them figured into the scoring.

Feel free to speculate on whether China has really closed the gap that much or whether the 2006 result was a bit of a fluke. Or, did Japan simply have a bad day at the plate?

One thing is for sure, China looks sloppy in the field. Two errors were charged to China, and this observer saw another error that was called a hit. Two possible double plays were poorly executed and resulted in single outs.

Although China is no longer an automatic win, and has shown great improvement over its 2006 performance thus far, the hitting still looked anemic. None of the four hits were particularly impressive, and Japan saw quite a few weak combacker ground balls to the pitcher. Still, China must be rooting for Korea in tomorrow night’s matchup in order to get a rematch with Taiwan (ahem – Chinese Taipei), which it beat 8-7 in the Olympics last year.

As for Japan? They only have to win one of their next two games to get through to the second round in San Diego, and that should be a lock. Still, the hitters need to show up.

Three Four Five Six Seven observer notes:

1) Awesome turnout and atmosphere at the Tokyo Dome. This event is for real and people were there having a good time. Lots of couples!

2) Tokyo Dome needs to get its act together with merchandising. It was a mess, with most WBC merchandise for sale outside the stadium in overcrowded tents. Garrett and I made two videos about this and will have them posted soon.

3) Totally unrelated to this game: It looks like Alex Rodriguez might miss the WBC due to injury. If this is true, I need to do a serious rethink on my position that the Dominican Republic will beat Cuba in the final. Sometimes one man does mean that much.

4) Tomorrow night I’m rooting for the underdog, Taiwan. Still, I want to see Japan versus Korea Saturday night. Quite the Catch-22.

5) In 2006, Japan also beat Taiwan by the mercy rule, 14-3 after seven innings. Taiwan must be hungry to get another shot at closing that gap.

6) I bought an Italy hat. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. At the local after the game, two guys who also went to the game saw it and asked me if it was an Ireland hat. I said it was Indonesia. They believed me, but I told them it was Italy. We agreed that Christian Vieri and Roberto Baggio are very missed.

7) I picked up a pack of 2008 Swallows cards (420 yen a pack!). Inside was a Toshifumi Baba silhouette card, Kyohei Muranaka, Aaron Guiel, Kosuke Matsui, Jun Ohtsuka, Hirotoshi Ishii, and a Hirotoshi Ishii “Road to Recovery” card. Tomorrow night I’ll have to try again to get that Aoki card.

  • Hara was trying desperately there at the end to manufacture run number five.

    He put Kataoka in as a pinch runner, and then he even asked Johjima to square up to bunt?! That didn’t work very well (foul ball). Kataoka was promptly thrown out at third when he got a little over ambitious on a routine grounder to short by Japan’s Seattle-based catcher.

    Last night we saw a glimpse of the Hara that will completely destroy Japan’s ability to play up to its potential in this series. If Japan doesn’t absolutely rout its opponent, Hara starts to get a little nervous and feels the need to fiddle with stuff.

    That means that Hara could become a more negative factor when the competition improves in the next round.

    True true about the rest of the big guns from the majors. They should have been able to tee off on China’s pitchers who left a lot of meatballs sitting up in the strike zone.

    Now let’s watch how the media and every talking head around makes things worse for Ichiro and team Japan when they voice their disappointment in the offense.

    Ichiro is a bit of a fish out of water over here in his “Samurai Japan” leadership role. We’ve seen more Ichiro interviews and heard more Ichiro sound bytes in the past month than in all of the previous years of his career combined. He’s finally in a position where he feels like he has to talk to the media, and that will probably continue to drag him down during the first round.

    My prediction is that he’ll continue to be a non-factor at the plate until “Samurai Japan” board a jet and head for North America.

    Until then, look for Hara to continue to put people in his own dugout on edge with his hands-on approach and for Aoki to keep quietly upstaging his MLB-based teammates.

  • I applaud you, Mr. Pellegrini. I could not agree more.

    Shut up about Aoki, though. Our only hope is that the powers that be continue to rate the (hands-down) best player in Japan beneath his less-talented big, famous team counterparts. If you spill the beans, Yakult might notice that he’s freaking awesome and desperately try to push him out.

    Based on temperament, character, and performance in international play this year, people who wet themselves over Ichiro, but don’t even clap much for Aoki (viz., the overwhelming majority of people in attendance at Japan games) are morons.

    Ichiro is a PR phenom. If you watch or listen to him, it’s not hard to see that, despite being a great player, he’s a show-boating, self-centered, greedy prima donna. Granted, he works hard, but he’s a professional baseball player – staying in shape is not, in and of itself, impressive. He’s not DR show-boating, but he’s not the humble workhorse the Japanese baseball press likes to create.

    Aoki is the one who performs consistently and behaves humbly (in his public duties at least), and deserves the laurels on this team, which will move to Round 2 in spite of Hara the Sub-competent.

    “Samurai Japan” is the perfect moronic nickname to give to a team that is starting to embody some of the less-attractve aspects of Japanese baseball.

    All of that bile aside, I’ll be hoping against hope for a resounding win against Korea, who showed mercy to Taiwan by not getting a mercy rule win tonight, tomorrow night. I expect a packed house – the biggest TD crowd I’ve yet seen – that may well see their much-ballyhooed heroes embarrassed by the under-ballyhooed Koreans.

  • Ken Worsley

    Korea is a force and beat Japan twice last time. I expect a tight, tense game and wonder if Hara will start micromanaging in the way Chris describes. The absolute last thing Japan would want is to have to play Sunday night against Taiwan.

    I’m not as down on Ichiro as Garrett is, because I’ve seen times when he’s showed his sense of humor and generous sides. He’s in a funk, and he’s going to have to get out of it for Japan to get that spark. It starts with him. If he leads off the bottom of the first by getting on, expect the mood to lift. Still, this Korea team is serious, and they’re going to be fired up and coming in on a high note.

  • Hey, it was great another member of the TYS crew last night! See you at or between the games today, and later on at Jingu!

  • Hey Simon. Sorry I missed you yesterday, I had to dash off home swiftly after the game.

    Catch you either today or at Jingu!

  • Ken Worsley

    Wow…didn’t think I’d be so right about Ichiro! Just kidding…hell of a performance from Japan.

    And the Netherlands are up 3-2 on the Dominican Republic in the bottom of the sixth right now!