Japan hits three HRs, beats China 18-2

Updated: March 3, 2006, 11:47 AM ET
By Jim Allen | Special to ESPN.com

TOKYO -- The World Baseball Classic's first day opened with a nail-biter and finished with a bloodletting as Japan crushed China 18-2 on Friday in Pool A play at Tokyo Dome.

After Korea overcame Chinese Taipei 2-0 in the opener, the second game followed suit for four innings as Japan took an early lead only to see China fight back with a two-run homer to tie it off tough right-hander Koji Uehara.

Light-hitting Japan infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka broke the tie with a three-run homer in the fifth and Uehara overcame a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the inning to stem China's advance. The game rapidly turned from close contest to rout to massacre, ending after eight innings because of a rule that halts games when one team has a lead of 15 runs after five innings or 10 runs after seven.

Uehara got the win, although the 65-pitch limit took him out of his game and made his pitching too predictable.

"I was conscious of it [the 65-pitch limit for first-round games], and in the fourth inning, I thought we were playing well, so I could pitch into the sixth inning," said Uehara. "So in the fourth and fifth innings, I was throwing almost nothing but strikes, I wasn't pitching the way I usually do, so the results were bad.

"Next time, in the second round, I will go back to a more balanced effort. That was the lesson I learned. I am really happy we won, but honestly speaking I am almost ready to cry over tonight's performance."

China manager Jim Lefebvre picked up on Uehara's plan and told his men to layoff Uehara's deadly forkball until they were down to their last strike. As a result, his players racked up seven hits and kept the game close until China's pitching depth proved fatal.

"The pitchers who came in the later innings were younger, less experienced and did not have enough control," said catcher Wei Wang, whose homer silenced Tokyo Dome and the crowd of 15,869 on hand.

Although Uehara lost that battle, he survived despite his efforts to economize. The Yomiuri Giants ace notched six strikeouts over five innings for the win, while allowing seven hits and hitting one batter with a pitch.

Naoyuki Shimizu pitched the final three innings for the save as Japan pulled even with Korea with one win apiece.

On Saturday, Korea will try to secure its spot in the quarterfinal round in Anaheim, Calif., against China, while Taiwan will try to even its record with a win over Japan.

Japan took the lead in the top of the second thanks to the unbridled hustle of cleanup hitter Nobuhiko Matsunaka. After legging out a leadoff double, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks' hero advanced on a groundout and scored from third on a fly to shallow left center by Akinori Iwamura.

China's defense gave up a soft run in the second after leadoff man Tomoya Satozaki reached on an error and went to second on a wild pitch. The Chiba Lotte Marines catcher took third on a flyout to right and scored on Ichiro Suzuki's groundout to second.

In the bottom of the fourth, Wang tied it, but the homer sounded the alarm.

"Nobody expected that," said Japan manager Sadaharu Oh. "Not Uehara, not me, not our players, not the fans, not even their players. But I think it turned on a switch for us, woke us up."

Things started to fall apart for China when its second pitcher Quan-zheng Zhao hit Hawks speedster Munenori Kawasaki with one out in the top of the fifth. The speedster stole second and Ichiro beat out one of his trademark singles to short, bringing up the Marines' Nishioka, who tried some small ball first.

"Before I entered the box, I thought about hitting one out and being the hero," said Nishioka, who has 10 homers in 668 career PL at-bats. "But then I thought, 'if I take a big cut and miss, that wouldn't be so good,' so I thought if I could roll one, it would allow Kawasaki, who runs well, to score. So I tried to bunt my way on.

"But in the middle of the at-bat, I thought, 'Why not try and hit it over the outfielders heads?' and as it turned out I got a homer."

Kosuke Fukudome of the Chunichi Dragons followed with a blast to right to make it 6-2 Japan.

The lead might have looked safe but the Chinese continued to poke away, loading the bases with three singles in the bottom of the fifth. It took a well-turned 6-4-3 double play by shortstop Kawasaki and second baseman Nishioka to prevent further Chinese incursions.

"That was a big play for us, one of the keys," Oh said. "Our defense is good."

After that inning, however, Oh's men opened the offensive floodgates and drowned their opponents until tournament rules came to China's assistance and ended the slaughter after eight innings.

Although manager Oh has talked of playing small ball, he was happy to see his club's extra-base potential realized in Tokyo with three homers, two triples and four doubles.

"Actually, when I mentioned 'small baseball,' I was talking about when we go to California," Oh said.

"I wasn't referring to the Asian round, where we have the most power. I didn't want to play little ball here. But once we go to the United States, we might have to change our tactics."

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.