FUKUSHIMA — Baseball’s first Olympic game in 13 years did not disappoint, with the Dominican Republic holding a 3-1 lead in a tense opener, only to see Japan load the bases with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to set up Hayato Sakamato for a walk-off hit. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, baseball legend Sadaharu Oh, Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto, and WBSC President Riccardo Fraccari present for the opener at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium on Wednesday.
The Samurai Japan National Team recorded the first Olympic win in the sport of baseball since it was last played at the 2008 Beijing Games. The top-ranked team in the world scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to come from behind and defeat No. 7 Dominican Republic, 4-3, in an electric opener.
“The fact the Dominican Republic scored first made the game much harder.” said Japan manger Atsunori Inaba. “We never gave up, and that led to our victory.”
Japan’s starter, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, pitched six scoreless innings with nine strikeouts, with Dominican Republic lefty Christopher Crisostomo matching him pitch for pitch. Only 27, Crisostomo has played the last five years in Japan, with a 2.86 ERA as a starter for the Yomiuri Giants.
“This was the first game, so I was definitely a bit nervous,” said Yamamoto. “Overall, I think my pitching was very good. I’m glad I was able to contribute.”
Crisostomo said: “I felt happy and excited to perform and be a part of this Dominican national team. It was also a privilege to serve as the starting pitcher in this opening game against Japan. I felt really good and excited. It felt great.”
The Dominican starter finally yielded a single run in the seventh after Hideto Asamura singled, went to third on a Yuki Yanagita double, and scored on a grounder. In the top half of the frame, however, long-time major leaguer Juan Francisco hit a leadoff single and went to second on an Erick Mejía base knock before Charlie Valerio ripped a two-bagger to send them both home with the first runs of the Olympics.
The D.R. added another run in the top of the ninth on doubles by Mejía and Gustavo Núñez before reliever Ryoji Kuribayashi struck out veteran Emilio Bonifacio and top prospect Julio Rodríguez. In the bottom of the frame, it was six-time NPB All-Star Yanagita who delivered again, beating out a one-out single to the right side. Kensuke Kondoh followed with a sharply hit ball to almost the same location before Munetaka Murakami lined a single to right to score Yanagita. Takuya Kai beat out a nifty squeeze bunt that scored the game-tying run and, after a Tetsuto Yamada single, left Japan with the bases loaded, two-down, in – of course – the bottom of the ninth. Hayato Sakamoto‘s flare to center empited an exultant Japanese dugout as a thrilling Game One concluded.
Star shortstop Sakamoto, the Central League’s 2019 MVP and a 12-time All-Star, said: “First of all, I’m very relieved to have our first win today. The first half of the match was a heavy atmosphere and everybody was nervous, but everybody on the bench was cheering us on. I’m very relieved to get the win today.”
With regard to playing the opener in Fukushima and raising awareness of the region’s recovery, Inaba said: “I really hope our victory will inspire the people who live here.”
Pre-Game Press Conference
In Yokohama, managers of world No. 3 Korea, No. 4 USA, No. 5 Mexico, No. 24 Israel gathered at the pre-tournament press conference. Media asked the four managers what they thought was needed to win a compact tournament such as the 6-team, 16-game Tokyo 2020 tournament.
USA skipper Mike Scioscia said: “The game of baseball may have changed, but in a tournament like this pitching and defence will be the keys.”
Israel’s Eric Holtz shared a similar opinion: “You will need to have good pitching, try to force mistakes and not making them.”
Mexico’s Benji Gil said: “We will focus on playing fundamentals baseball. We will need to create opportunities and not make mistakes. After the first couple of games, it will be like always playing game seven in a playoff series.”
South Korea’s Kyung-moon Kim said: “Pitching, defence, hitting and base running will be important. What we are focusing on right now is playing united as a team, make great teamwork.”
Israel and defending Olympic champions South Korea will be the lone game on Day 2, when they take the field at Yokohama Stadium Thursday at 7 pm JST. It will be Israel’s debut on the Olympic baseball stage.
Israel upset Korea, 2-1, in the opening round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic the last time the two teams played each other.
Graphics and photo courtesy of WBSC.