Japan rallies in 9th to beat DR 4-3 in Olympic opener

Jul 27, 2021, 11:30 AM | Updated: Jul 28, 2021, 3:51 am

FUKUSHIMA, Japan (AP) — Hayato Sakamoto hit a game-ending, bases-loaded single that capped a three-run, ninth-inning rally, lifting host Japan over the Dominican Republic 4-3 in the Olympic baseball opener Wednesday.

The Dominicans led 3-1 entering the ninth after starter Cristopher Mercedes dominated a lineup he knows well from his years in Nippon Professional Baseball. Outfielder Johan Mieses threw out a runner at home in the eighth inning to preserve the lead.

Jairo Asencio (0-1) got the first out of the ninth, then forgot to cover first on Yuki Yanagita’s grounder to first, letting him reach for Japan’s fifth hit of the game. He allowed two more hits before Kai Takuya scored the tying run with a sacrifice bunt.

After Tetsuto Yamada singled to load the bases, Jhan Martinez replaced Asencio. Sakamoto, the 2019 Central League MVP, then drove a ball to the warning track in center to earn the hosts a walk-off victory.

Just the way Japan wanted to open the tournament.

The Olympics host nation is pursuing its first gold medal in baseball after the sport was restored to the Summer Games for the first time since 2008. Few medals would mean more to the baseball-crazed country, and expectations are high.

While Major League Baseball players aren’t at these Olympics, Japan’s professional league suspended its season to accomodate the Games. Manager Astunori Inaba has many of his country’s best on the roster, including former Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka, now with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Inaba instead gave the ball to Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, a 22-year-old three-time All-Star in Japan who could have a stateside future. He delivered six scoreless innings, striking out seven with one walk, two hits and 88 pitches in his first high-profile international appearance.

Mercedes was every bit as good against a loaded lineup. The 27-year-old — in his fifth season with the Pacific League’s Yomiuri Giants — cruised into the seventh leading 2-0. He struck out seven and walked one over six innings, no surprise to fans who have watched him go 5-1 with a 2.31 ERA for the Giants this year.

Manager Hector Borg sent Mercedes back out for the seventh with his pitch count at 96, but Mercedes was pulled after leadoff hits from Hideto Asamura and Yuki Yanagita.

Luis Castillo allowed a fielder’s choice RBI groundout to Munetaka Murakami but preserved a 2-1 lead. Prized Seattle Mariners prospect Julio Rodríguez made a running catch in right field for the final out of the inning.

Mieses kept it that way with his bullet throw in the eighth. Yamada tried to score from second base on Mastaka Yoshida’s single, but Mieses’ strike allowed Valerio to tag Yamada on the shoulder as he slid toward the plate.

Japan asked for a video review that upheld the out call, prompting cheers from Dominican players that echoed around the empty stadium. Relief pitcher Jumbo Díaz pounded his chest and hollered toward rainy skies after getting the third out a batter later.

The Dominicans went ahead 2-0 on Charlie Valerio’s double in the seventh against sidearming reliever Koyo Aoyogi and led 3-1 after Gustavo Nunez’s ninth-inning RBI double off Hiroshima 25-year-old right-hander Ryoji Kuribayashi (1-0).

The typhoon threatening to hamper the Olympics brought rain in the eighth inning but didn’t interrupt play on the turf field.

The opener was staged at a 14,300-seat stadium in the northern prefecture of Fukushima after the area was devastated by an earthquke in 2011. Organizers hoped to lure tourists and also host fans from the region, but like most venues at these Games, no spectators were allowed.

Among the few locals in attendance: a high school-aged pitcher and catcher who threw out the ceremonial first pitch with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Japanese baseball great Sadaharu Oh watching.

The rest of the tournament will be played at Yokohoma Stadium closer to Tokyo.

The Dominicans haven’t played in the Olympics since 1992, when they finished sixth out of eight teams. Despite a roster featuring former big league stars Bautista and Melky Cabrera, they were the last team to punch a Tokyo ticket by winning a qualifying tournament over Venezuela and the Netherlands in Mexico in June.

Japan made some late roster moves, including dropping Central League MVP Tomoyuki Sugano, who is expected to be pursued by major league teams during the offseason. The left-hander, who turns 32 in October, is 2-4 with a 3.29 ERA for Yomiuri.

Giants left-hander Kota Nakagawa was also dropped. Japan added right-handers Hiromi Itoh of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and Koudai Senga of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

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Japan rallies in 9th to beat DR 4-3 in Olympic opener