Matsuzaka keeps Japan alive, beats Mexico

by Jim McLauchlin
March 14, 2006

ANAHEIM–In what was a life-or-death situation for both the Mexican and Japanese teams in the World Baseball Classic, Japan lived to fight another day.

Japan rode the strong arms of starting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka and three relievers to shut down Mexico’s bats and cruise to a 6-1 win. Japan moves to 1-1 in the three-game second round, while Mexico falls to 0-2.

Mexico is eliminated unless a labyrinthine combination occurs: They would need Korea to beat Japan, and they would need to beat the U.S. 1-0 in a 14-inning game. Really. Japan can insure its advance if it beats Korea, and scores seven or fewer runs doing it (assuming a nine-inning game) under the tiebreaker system.

Therefore, the U.S.’s fate will be decided largely by Wednesday’s Japan/Korea game. If Korea wins, the U.S. will automatically advance to the finals with a win Thursday over Mexico.

Matsuzaka, a 26-year-old righthander, pitched brilliantly, going five innings and facing just two batters more than the minimum. He gave up only one hit and no runs, allowing two walks on 73 pitches. Mexico lofted six balls out of the infield against Matsuzaka, none of which were threats to drop for hits. And he remained characteristically humble after the game.

“I was trying to be too accurate on the corners at the beginning, but I started not to worry about it too much as my pitches were going really well,” Matsuzaka said. “Both offense and defense gave me a huge lift. I thank the position players.”

The position players most deserving of thanks were first baseman Michihiro Ogasawara, who had a two-RBI single in the fourth inning, and catcher Tomoya Satozaski, who powered a two-run homer to right-center in that same inning.

“The pitch was either a slider or a cutter,” Satozaski said of his home run ball. “I only tried to advance the runner. I tried to hit it to the opposite field.”

Miguel Ojeda smacked a solo home run for Mexico in the bottom of the eighth inning, which roused the crowd of 16,591 from their slumbers, but it only trimmed the margin to 5-1. Japan was in control, and Rangers hurler Akinori Otsuka pitched a scoreless ninth inning to seal the deal.

Japan won despite an uncharacteristic breakdown in fundamentals. Japan had been highly praised by U.S. manager Buck Martinez as being very fundamentally sound, but this game’s performance did little to show it. Japan committed an error, botched one bunt, failed to run out another, and had a runner thrown out trying to go from first to third on a single. But solid pitching kept them in the game, and eventually won the day.

“We want to thank Mr. Matsuzaka for his great pitching,” Japanese manager Sadaharu Oh said after the game. “I’ve seen him play in the regular season, and I was convinced if he could pitch his game versus the strong Mexican hitters, we could win.”

Japan takes on Korea in a major rivalry game on Wednesday. Korea previously beat Japan, 3-2, in a Round One game. Mexico closes out against Roger Clemens and the U.S. on Thursday. In their prior Round One tussle, the U.S. bested Mexico 2-0. This time, Mexico will trot out Pirates hurler Oliver Perez for the start.