CHIBA – For the second time in four games during the Premier12, Samurai Japan had its feet held to the fire.
So far, manager Atsunori Inaba’s team has been able outrun the flames. Seiya Suzuki homered in the fourth, Ukyo Shuto put a charge into the crowd by stealing his way around the bases before scoring the tying run on a two-out bunt in the seventh and Hideto Asamura drew a tiebreaking bases-loaded walk in the eighth as Japan rallied for a 3-2 win over Australia in its first game in the Super Round of the Premier12 on a chilly Monday night at Zozo Marine Stadium.
“Australia’s pitchers were really good and our offense was kind of struggling and we allowed the first two runs,” said Inaba. “Seiya’s home run really gave us a lot of excitement and really got us going.”
Suzuki hit a big home run, but the star of the night was a player who never stepped to the plate.
Shuto entered the game as a pinch runner in the seventh and promptly stole two bases, which put pressure on the Australians, who were trying to protect a one-run lead.
“I think the difference at the end was the pressure Team Japan put on us with the speed on the base paths, kind of broke us a little bit,” said Australia manager Dave Nilsson.
A risky two-out bunt by Sosuke Genda brought Shuto home from third as the tying run.
“There was no sign,” Inaba said, referring to the bunt. “It was on his own. I was surprised, but in an international game it was really important for him (Genda) to make his presence felt.”
The reward ended up being worth the risk for the Japanese.
“As far as the squeeze bunt goes, that was a well-executed play,” Nilsson said. “I tip my hat to Team Japan. It was a risky play with two outs and he had to execute it perfectly and he did that.”
Plate discipline accounted for Japan’s final run, as Tetsuto Yamada drew a walk to load the bases and Asamura drew a free pass to force in a run and make the score 3-2.
Japan has won all four games it’s played during the tournament.
Suzuki has played a big role in all four wins. The Hiroshima Carp outfielder has hits in all four games, has home runs in the last three and has driven in 10 runs.
“I was just trying to get on base,” Suzuki said of his homer on Monday. “But I ended up with the best possible result and it gave the team some momentum.”
Australia struck first on Monday with an RBI single by Tim Kennelly in the third inning and tacked on another run via a double from Mitch Nilsson in the fourth.
But just like against Venezuela in its first game, Japan would not be denied.
Suzuki got the Japanese on the board with his third home run in as many games during the fourth inning to make the score 2-1.
Masataka Yoshida singled to start the seventh and Japan brought on speedy 23-year-old Shuto to run the bases. Shuto stole second when Asamura struck out and swiped third before Nobuhiro Matsuda went down swinging. He raced home when Genda laid down a two-out bunt and beat pitcher Luke Wilkins to the plate to tie the score.
“They executed a very good bunt in a very good location,” Nilsson said. “Wilkins had two options. One was to throw to first or throw to home. He chose to go home with it. I think with his footing on that turf and with the speed of the runner, either option would’ve been a very close play.”
Kensuke Kondo connected on a two-out double in the eighth and Australia intentionally walked Suzuki. Yamada pinch-hit for Shuto and drew a walk to load the bases.
Asamura was then walked on four pitches to bring in the tiebreaking run.
Closer Yasuaki Yamasaki retired the side in the ninth to end the game. Yamasaki was credited with the save, while Hiroshi Kaino earned the win in relief.
Jon Kennedy, who allowed Japan’s run in the eighth, took the loss.
This year’s Premier12 is being used as a qualifying tournament for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The top finishers from Asia/Oceania and the Americas will each earn a berth for the six-team Olympic tournament. Japan has already qualified as the host nation.