Japan beat Italy and advance to World Baseball Classic semifinal

Japan beat Italy and advance to World Baseball Classic semifinal
Kazuma Okamoto (pictured) hit a home run, double and had five RBIs in a 9-3 win. Japan will play the winner of the Puerto Rico-Mexico quarterfinal on Monday, 20 March, in Miami.

World No. 1 Japan defeated No. 15 Italy, 9-3, in front of 41,723 fans at the Tokyo Dome and advanced to the World Baseball Classic semifinals undefeated.

Samurai Japan will play on Monday, 20 March, in the second semifinal against the winner of the Puerto Rico-Mexico quarterfinal, scheduled for Friday, 17 March.

Japan took the lead in the bottom of the third. With runners at the corners, Italy's shortstop Nicky Lopez dove to stop a sharp grounder by left fielder Masataka Yoshida and Kensuke Kondoh scored from third.

Shohei Ohtani set up the scoring opportunity as he bunted through a shift. "I intended to advance runners," commented the two-way star. "Apparently, I obtained more than I had planned."

First baseman Kasuma Okamoto got to reliever Joe LaSorsa's fifth pitch and turned it into a three-run homer to extend the lead to 4-0.

Ohtani pitched 4.2 innings, delivering 71 pitches and earning the win. His fastball touched 102 miles (164 kilometres) per hour.

Ohtani left after Italy's right fielder Dominic Fletcher got to his 100 mph fastball with the bases loaded and delivered a two-RBI single.

"I knew I had a strong bullpen behind me. I focused on executing every pitch, which I thought was fairly effective. The only thing I didn't like is hitting two batters in the fifth," commented Ohtani.

"I saw the real Ohtani tonight," said Japan's manager Hideki Kuriyama, who mentored young Ohtani at the NPB's Nippon Ham Fighters. "He is the guy you want on the mound for must-win games. You must credit him and Yu Darvish for crossing the ocean to play for Japan."

Lefty Hiromi Itoh took over from Ohtani and got catcher Brett Sullivan to end the inning.

Japan didn't need to look back. They broke the score open with three runs in the bottom half of the fifth thanks to back-to-back RBI doubles by Tokyo 2020 gold medallist Munetaka Murakami and Okamoto on the first two pitched by reliever Vinny Nittoli, the fourth Italian pitcher.

Surprisingly, Japan used Yu Darvish as a reliever in the seventh, despite a five-run lead.

"Italy had very good at bats tonight. They swung and missed at very few pitches. Despite the lead, I wanted to take no risk in the final innings. That's why I sent Darvish to the mound," commented Kuriyama.

Yoshida added a solo home run, his first in the tournament, off Joey Marciano in the bottom of the seventh.

"Against an outstanding team, you need to be exceptional and we weren't," commented Italy's manager Mike Piazza. "Our pitchers allowed eight walks. It's part of baseball, but you're not going to beat a team like Japan if you allow eight walks.

The first semifinal is scheduled for Sunday, 19 March, between Cuba and the winner of the United States-Venezuela quarterfinal, scheduled for Saturday, 18 March.

The World Baseball Classic final is scheduled for Tuesday, 21 March.

loanDepot Park in Miami will host semifinals and finals.