It was an instant classic in a Classic situation for a team that has been the class of the WBC.
Two-time defending champion Samurai Japan played a lot more like ninja--escaping tight situations, and staying composed through emotional swings and daunting circumstances--as they wobbled away with a 4-3 victory in a 10-round Friday night fight with Taiwan.
Japan had heroes such as the Chunichi Dragons' Hirokazu Ibata, whose ninth-inning RBI single on a two-out, two-strike pitch tied the score, and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters slugger Sho Nakata, who pushed home the go-ahead run with a 10th-inning sacrifice fly that gave the team its first-and-only lead of the second-round game.
But Japan skipper Koji Yamamoto wasn't talking about one particular play afterward. In fact, he seemed emotionally spent by the time Yomiuri Giants lefty Toshiya Sugiuchi induced a game-ending double play with two runners on in the bottom of the 10th inning.
"It was an amazing game and I was so glad we won," Yamamoto said of his feeling the moment the last out was recorded.
"I looked at my watch after we won and it was almost midnight. I thought, 'We've got to go again tomorrow.' Then I realized we didn't have a game until [Sunday]. That's what it was like."
It was only fitting that Nakata pushed home the eventual game-winning run with sacrifice fly before more than 43,000 fans at Tokyo Dome who refused to give up or give in during the 4-hour 37-minute struggle.
Other heroes were the Hanshin Tigers' Takashi Toritani, who drew a walk with one down in the ninth and stole second with two outs on a bang-bang play at the bag. He carried home the tying run on Ibata's hit.
Prior to that, Yomiuri's Tetsuya Yamaguchi came on with Taiwan threatening to pull away--leading 3-2 in the eighth--with runners on second and third and no outs. He got a groundout and a popup to keep the score tied, and the Giants' Hirokazu Sawamura got the final out of the inning to keep things close.
The Saitama Seibu Lions' Kazuhisa Makita was the winner after tossing a scoreless ninth.
It was a wild third inning from Atsushi Nomi that helped give Taiwan a 1-0 lead. The Hanshin lefty looked out of sorts, throwing just two strikes in the frame.
Kuo Yen-wen lined a double off the wall in right-center field to lead it off. A sacrifice bunt later, Lin Che-hsuan drew a walk and Nomi plunked Peng Cheng-min to load the bases.
Lin Chih-sheng couldn't take advantage of a 2-0 pitch, popping out foul for the second out. But Nomi went to a 3-1 count on Chou Szu-chi before walking the DH to force in a run.
Yamamoto turned to Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks ace Tadashi Settsu, who fanned Lin Hung-yu to close out the inning with Japan down by only a run.
Settsu was sharp early, striking out the first three batters he faced. But the righty gave up a run in the fifth after Lin Che-hsuan doubled with one out in the frame and Peng singled him home for a 2-0 lead.
Masahiro Tanaka made a strong showing, fanning four over three innings, but he lost it in the fifth inning when the first three batters hit safely and Taiwan took a 3-2 lead.
Shinnosuke Abe singled in Ibata and Hayato Sakamoto's RBI groundout got Japan even in the eighth.
Japan to face aggressive Dutch
The win in the double-elimination round set up Japan for a matchup against the Netherlands tonight at 7 p.m. The winner clinches a trip to San Francisco for the championship round, which starts March 17.
"To be honest, I find it really difficult to think about [the Dutch team] right now," Yamamoto said after Friday's win.
"I know from seeing them today that I feel like they take aggressive swings and they have a lot of power."
Former big league hurler and Dutch pitching coach Bert Blyleven said his pitchers basically have one plan for all their opponents.
"The pitching: throw strikes and attack," he told The Daily Yomiuri before Friday's 6-2 victory over Cuba. "Nothing changes, it's just baseball. You go out there and do the best you can and stay aggressive in the strike zone."