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Friday, Aug. 22, 2008

U.S. downs Japan in 11th inning of prelim battle


Staff writer

BEIJING — Japan's pitchers held the United States' hitters in check for 10 innings. Team USA's hurlers matched their foes' success. And the scoreboard registered a string of zeros.

That changed in the 11th inning of a 4-2 U.S. victory over Japan in the Olympic baseball preliminary-round game on Wednesday night at Wukesong Baseball Field.

The International Baseball Federation's tie-breaker rule, used in the Olympics for the first time this year, puts runners at first and second to begin the 11th and teams reset their lineup by selecting one batter to lead off that inning and subsequent innings. The runners placed at first and second precede the new leadoff batter in the lineup.

Team USA's Brian Barden led off the 11th with an RBI single to center off reliever Hitoki Iwase, sending Jason Donald home for the game's first run. Japan's fielders were drawn in to wait for a bunt; instead they were caught off-guard by Barden's full swing.

Nate Schierholtz and Matt Brown added run-scoring singles and John Gall's RBI groundout gave the Americans a 4-0 advantage.

In the bottom of the 11th, Norichika Aoki struck out and Takahiro Aoki flied out to center.

With two outs, Atsunori Inaba's single cut the deficit to three runs. Hiroyuki Nakajima followed with a single, Masahiro Araki scored and the U.S. lead was trimmed to 4-2.

Then Munenori Kawasaki walked to prolong the rally. Pinch hitter Shinnosuke Abe's flyout to first accounted for the game's final out.

Japan manager Senichi Hoshino admitted after the game he expected Barden to bunt in that situation.

"I used to be a pitcher myself," Hoshino said. "As a result, if it were my mistake to put runners on base I would know the other team would bunt. It's the first time I've played with the extra-inning rule, and so I thought they would bunt and so we made a mistake today. I have learned a good lesson from today's game."

Japan (4-3) faces South Korea (7-0) in Friday's first semifinal. First pitch is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Japan time.

Cuba (6-1) and the United States (5-2) meet in the second semifinal.

The winners meet in Saturday's title game, which is set for 7 p.m., and the losers square off in the bronze medal contest at 11:30.

"Of course we feel pressure, but it's only when both teams feel great pressure that we can play a great game," Hoshino said, looking ahead to the semifinals.

South Korea beat Japan 5-3 in the preliminary round.

Japan starter Yu Darvish was limited to two innings of work — three strikeouts and no hits allowed — on Thursday, resting his arm for the upcoming games.

Hoshino brought in Masahiro Tanaka to pitch in the third and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles right-hander delivered five innings of two-hit ball, fanning three and walking none.

A large contingent of Major League Baseball scouts witnessed Tanaka's dazzling performance.

"What I am most satisfied about today is the mix of pitches — a good mix of breaking balls and strikes to confuse the batters," said Tanaka.

Kenshin Kawakami pitched the eighth and ninth innings and Iwase worked the final two frames.

Japan's pitchers combined for 12 strikeouts (three apiece). Kawakami issued the only two walks to U.S. hitters.

"There was just good pitching going on," U.S. second baseman Brian Barden said. "We're not used to those kinds of pitchers. They have different windups and they were doing a good job of mixing up the pitches. It's going to take some getting used to and, hopefully, next time we can get used to it."

U.S. starter Trevor Cahill worked three scoreless innings. Jeremy Cummings (two innings), Brian Duensing (one) and Blaine Neal (two) also pitched before making way for Jeff Stevens in the ninth. He worked two innings of one-hit, no-run ball to pick up the win, improving to 1-2 in the tournament.

Casey Weathers pitched the 12th to get the save.

Both teams finished with five hits. Team USA center fielder Dexter Fowler and Japan shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima were the only players with two hits.

Japan left eight runners on base to Team USA's five.

After the game, there were mixed views about the tiebreaker rule.

"I don't like this dumb rule," Barden said. "I wish we could just play it out like the game should be."

"It was already decided so we have to obey it," Inaba said. "This is the first time for us to try it in the Olympic Games but I felt good about it."

Nakajima dished out a similar perspective.

"It is the first time we have experienced the new rule and until now I had some idea of what it was like," Nakajima said.

"Neither of the teams scored any runs in the first 10 innings and we play under the new rule in the same conditions. Unfortunately, we only scored two runs to their four. Anyway, I think it was fair for both of us."



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