The Japanese will head to America as the winner of Pool E, after an 8-3 win over Israel on Wednesday that wrapped up an undefeated run through the first two rounds of the tournament. The two-time World Baseball Classic champions will play the second-place team from Pool F on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium (9 p.m. ET live on MLB.TV and MLB Network).
First-round Most Valuable Player Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh was the hero of Japan’s clinching win, with a home run off Dylan Axelrod to break up a scoreless tie in the sixth inning. Japan scored five times in the sixth and added three runs in the eighth before holding off Israel’s ninth-inning rally.
“I am so pleased that we won,” said Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo, who was put in charge of the national team after Japan lost to Puerto Rico in the semifinals of the 2013 Classic.
The loss ended Israel’s surprise run through WBC 2017 and sent the Netherlands to a second consecutive semifinal. The Dutch, who beat Cuba, 14-1, will face the Pool F winner Monday (9 p.m. ET live on MLB.TV and MLB Network).
Japan is the only country that has made it to the semifinals each time the World Baseball Classic has been played, but the 2013 loss to Puerto Rico still stings for Japanese players, fans and baseball officials here. For four years, Japan has focused on regaining the title it won in both ’06 and ’09.
Right-hander Kodai Senga pitched the first five innings for Japan. Israel had just two hits until the ninth inning, when an Ike Davis single broke up the shutout. Israel scored three times in the ninth and had two runners on base before the rally fizzled.
“You could really see the character of our team,” Israel manager Jerry Weinstein said. “We didn’t fold up our tents. We competed. I’m proud of our team for battling for nine innings.”
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Oh, oh, Tsutsugoh: Japanese baseball has long been associated with small ball, but this version of Team Japan has sluggers. Tops among them is Tsutsugoh, who was the Most Valuable Player in Pool B in the first round and hit his third home run of the tournament Wednesday. The 25-year-old Tsutsugoh, the cleanup hitter for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars, hit 44 home runs in 133 games last season. His home run off Axelrod was a no-doubter, landing deep in the seats below the center-field scoreboard.
“I didn’t expect us to hit as many home runs as we did,” said Kokubo, whose team homered 10 times in six games at Tokyo Dome. “I think once the tournament started, they swung hard.”
Bullpenning, Part I: Japan’s run through the tournament has also shown off a deep and talented bullpen. Senga had been part of it, but Kokubo chose to start him against Israel. It worked out well. Senga gave up a base hit to Sam Fuld on his second pitch of the game, and he then didn’t allow another hit over five strong innings. Senga started 25 games for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks last season, going 12-3 with a 2.61 ERA.
“I was so determined not to give up any runs every inning,” Senga said.
Bullpenning, Part II: Short on starting pitchers, Weinstein gave the ball to right-hander Josh Zeid, his closer through the first five games of the tournament. Zeid gave Israel a chance with four scoreless innings, and perhaps helped give himself a chance at a job with a Major League club. Zeid, a free agent who had 48 Major League appearances from 2013-14 with the Astros, pitched 10 scoreless innings in the tournament.
“I put a lot of time, effort, blood and sweat into preparing for this,” said Zeid. “If this is the last game I’m going to play, I wanted to give it all I had. It was very emotional.” More >
Five in the sixth: Tsutsugoh’s home run put Japan ahead, but it was the four runs that scored after it that took Israel out of the game. Weinstein used four pitchers in the inning, but there were five hits, two walks (one intentional), a bases-loaded hit batter and an error before Brad Goldberg struck out Sheiichi Uchikawa to end it.
“My hope is by virtue of us playing in the World Baseball Classic and doing well, it heightens awareness worldwide and in Israel. I hope the next time Israel plays here, you’re looking at a bunch of kids born in the State of Israel.” — Weinstein
“I don’t know who we will play [in the semifinals], but no matter who it is, it will be a tough game.” — Kokubo
Japan: The Japanese move on to the final round of the tournament, and they will face the second-place team from Pool F in a semifinal game Tuesday (9 p.m. ET) at Dodger Stadium.
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 Pool F games at Petco Park and 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. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.