TOKYO – Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama still gets a special tingle watching Shohei Ohtani. It’s been that way since Kuriyama managed the two-way star with the Hokkaido Ham-Fighters.
“When we see Shohei playing, not only the players but also the Japanese baseball fans, all the nation is feeling something extra,” Kuriyama said through a translator after Ohtani led Japan over Italy 9-3 on Thursday night to put the Samurai Warriors in their fifth straight World Baseball Classis semifinal.
Ohtani pitched shutout ball into the fifth inning and sparked a four-run third with a bunt single.
“These kind of moments, this is how I feel the sense of Ohtani,” Kuriyama said. “This is Shohei. This is Shohei. When he plays a must-win game like tonight, we see who Shohei is.”
Boston’s Masataka Yoshida homered and drove in the go-ahead run with a grounder, giving him a tournament-leading 10 RBIs. Kazuma Okamoto hit a three-run homer for Japan, which has outscored opponents 47-11 in five games and is batting .313.
Japan travels to Miami for a semifinal on Monday against Puerto Rico or Mexico. Cuba plays the other semifinal against the United States or Venezuela.
Pitching before an adoring crowd of 41,723 at the Tokyo Dome, Ohtani threw his fastest pitch since he joined the Los Angeles Angels in 2018, striking out Vinnie Pasquantino on a 102 mph fastball in the second. That topped a 101.4 mph pitch that struck out Houston’s Kyle Tucker last Sept. 10.
Ohtani (2-0) allowed two runs and four hits in 4 2/3 innings with five strikeouts and a walk and went 1 for 4 with a walk at the plate. He is hitting .438 (7 for 16) with a home run, three doubles and eight RBIs along with a 2.08 ERA, 10 strikeouts and one walk on the mound. Ohtani would be available on four days’ rest to pitch in a possible final on Tuesday — 4 1/2 days, counting the time difference.
Ohtani stretched his tournament scoreless streak to 8 2/3 innings before the fifth, when Dominic Fletcher hit a soft bases-loaded single into right with two outs on Ohtani’s 71st and final pitch – nine short of the limit. Ohtani had hit Ben Deluzio with a pitch with one out, allowed a single to David Fletcher, retired Sal Frelick on a flyout and hit Nicky Lopez with a pitch.
“In the fourth and fifth innings I struggled a bit, but until then I had good rhythm and I pitched well, I think,” Ohtani said.
Ohtani also mentioned his special relationship with Kuriyama, who encouraged him to continue as a two-way player.
“This is such a special moment for me,” Ohtani said, referring to Kuriyama in the Japanese style of Kuriyama-san. “When I played for Kuriyama-san for the Fighter, I learned a lot. Yes, he is someone who taught me how to play well.”
Hiromi Itoh relieved and retired Miles Mastrobuoni on a flyout as Yoshida slammed into the left field wall while making the catch.
Japan is the only nation to reach the semifinals of all five WBCs, winning the first two tournaments in 2006 and 2009. The Samurai Warriors were knocked out by Puerto Rico in 2013 and the U.S. in 2017.
Italy, managed by Mike Piazza, advanced past the first round for the first time since 2013. Dominic Fletcher, an Arizona prospect, drove in all three of Italy’s runs and had the team’s first home run of the tournament, a solo shot in the eighth off Yu Darvish.
“Against a very good team, you have to be exceptional,” Piazza said. “And obviously tonight we weren’t, We didn’t throw the ball well tonight. We needed our pitchers to have a very good game.”
Italy pitchers walked eight.
“You’re not going to beat at team like Japan with eight walks,” Piazza said.
Japan went ahead in a four-run third.
Kensue Kondoh walked with one out against Tampa Bay minor leaguer Joe LaSorsa (0-1), and Ohtani bunted down the third base line for a single as LaSorsa threw wildly for an error that left runners at the corners. Yoshida’s groundout put Japan ahead, Munetaka Murakami walked and Okamoto homered.
Murakami, a two-time Central League MVP, hit an RBI double in the fifth and Kazuma Okamoto followed with a two-run double off Vinny Nittoli that opened a 7-2 lead.
Yoshida homered in the seventh against San Francisco prospect Joey Marciano and Sosuke Genda added an RBI single.