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Japan Tops Italy To Advance To World Baseball Classic Semifinals

As they get ready to board a flight from Japan to the U.S. to ready for their semifinal game, Samurai Japan, the team that has won more World Baseball Classic titles than any other, seems poised to add a third trophy to its collection.

Five games into the tournament, Japan has looked nearly flawless. Its 9-3 win over Italy in the WBC quarterfinals looked relatively easy and overwhelming at the same time. Japan’s pitching staff has such an embarrassment of riches that after starting Shohei Ohtani, the team finished off Italy by bringing Yu Darvish out of the bullpen.

Where Team USA and others have struggled to balance the demands of getting big league pitchers work while also trying to win games, Japan was able to stay close to Ohtani and Darvish’s regular throwing schedules by tag-teaming them, knowing that even if these end up being their last pitches of the tournament, Japan still has Roki Sasaki and Yoshinobu Yamamoto ready to go for the semifinals and finals, a pair of aces who have not been seen by the MLB players who they will face in those games.

A Kazuma Okamoto three-run home run squelched much of the drama as Japan took a 4-0 lead in the third.

Italy did rally and cut the lead to 4-2 to chase Ohtani from the game in the fifth. Dominic Fletcher provided the big hit with a two-RBI single to right field.

But Japan struck again with back-to-back RBI doubles by Murakami and Okamoto in the fifth and Yoshida homered in the seventh.

Fletcher’s impressive game continued with a home run off Darvish in the eighth, but Italy never came close to putting together another threat.

Japan heads to the U.S. with a perfect 5-0 record that doesn’t fully explain its dominance so far. Japan has outscored its opponents, 47-11, so far. Its closest margin of victory is six runs.

Japan’s 1.80 ERA is the best in the tournament so far. It also leads all 20 teams in hits per nine innings (5.2), walks per nine (1.0) and strikeouts per nine (12.6). But Japan also has been dominant offensively. It’s second in the tournament in runs per game (9.4), first in on-base percentage (.475) and second in slugging percentage (.421).

Thanks to Ohtani and Sasaki, Japan has topped 100.0 mph on 29 pitches in the tournament so far. In comparison Team USA has topped 97 mph on only one pitch in the tournament so far (a 97.4 mph Daniel Bard fastball). Japan has thrown 81 pitchers in this tournament that are harder than the hardest pitch thrown by a Team USA pitcher.

Tournament baseball is not the same as a full season, but Japan’s approach to this tournament is notable. While the American teams try to balance letting players work out with their MLB teams before hurriedly assembling for a couple of exhibition games before beginning tournament play, Japan began working as a team nearly a month ago.

That approach has consistently worked. Japan is the only team to make the semifinals in all five World Baseball Classic tournaments. It will face the winner of Puerto Rico and Mexico on March 20 in Miami in the second of two semifinals.

Can it add a third title in five WBCs? Tournament play means one bad day can derail a dominant team, but so far Japan has stayed far away from any bad days.

Hiroto Takahashi (Photo By Eric Espada Getty Images)

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One night after Roki Sasaki and Yoshinobu Yamamoto impressed in Japan’s semifinal victory over Mexico, another young Japanese pitcher wowed on the world stage.

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