3/2/2013 10:44 A.M. ET
Japan rallies past Brazil in Classic opener
By Jason Coskrey / Special to MLB.com
FUKUOKA, Japan -- If the first game of Pool A was any indication, the 2013 World Baseball Classic is going to be extraordinary.
It was a cardiac affair, as injured Japan captain Shinnosuke Abe stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a tie game and sent a bullet up the middle that allowed the go-ahead run to score and helped the two-time defending champions stave off upset-minded Brazil, 5-3, in a dramatic opener at Fukuoka's Yafuoku Dome.
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"We had a great chance right there, and I [wanted] to get a good swing on the ball," Abe said. "It was right after a walk, and I thought the pitcher wanted to throw a strike, so I tried to be aggressive."
Abe's status was uncertain less than an hour before the game, when manager Koji Yamamoto announced a right-knee injury would keep the catcher out of Japan's starting lineup.
Yamamoto said he'd consider using Abe as a pinch-hitter, and he held on to his trump card until just the right moment.
The upstart Brazilians took a 3-2 lead into the eighth, but Seiichi Uchikawa got Japan off and running with a leadoff single. Cleanup hitter Yoshio Itoi laid down a bunt to move the runner along, and pinch-hitter Hirokazu Ibata tied the game with an RBI single to right.
"Itoi laid down the sacrifice, and I was just trying to hit it to the opposite field if I got the right pitch," Ibata said.
Hisayoshi Chono followed with an infield single, and Takashi Toritani drew a walk to load the bases. Abe then rifled a hard-hit ball up the middle that second baseman Felipe Burin dove to knock down. Burin's play kept the ball in the infield, but Brazil wasn't able stop Ibata from coming home to put Japan on top, 4-3. Nobuhiro Matsuda tacked on an insurance run with an RBI single later in the inning.
"It was a very tough battle," Yamamoto said. "The Brazilian team really played tenaciously. We struggled to get the momentum."
It was a heartbreaking turn of event for the Brazilians, who had Japan on the ropes.
"This is a very confident ballclub that we have," Brazil manager Barry Larkin said. "We have some definite philosophies that we try to execute out there. Once again, we gave ourselves a chance to win a ballgame, but Japan just kept coming, kept coming, and they just stayed at it."
Leonardo Reginatto was the star for Brazil, driving in a pair of runs on a 3-for-4 night that included a two doubles. Paulo Orlando was another standout for Larkin's squad, finishing 2-for-4 with a pair of runs scored.
"It was a tough loss," Reginatto said through a translator. "We are very proud of ourselves."
Japan pitcher Tadashi Settsu earned the win in relief, allowing one run on two hits and striking out four in three innings. Kazuhisa Makita worked the ninth to earn the save.
Japan ace Masahiro Tanaka got the start, but was done after two unremarkable innings and allowed an unearned run on four hits.
"His first inning was rough," Yamamoto said. "In the second, although he was facing the bottom of the order, it still was not solid pitching. Considering all those things, we decided to pull him out. We'll think about what we do concerning him from now."
Tanaka, who had subpar performances in a pair of warm-up starts prior to the Classic, might've had an even worse night if not for the pair of inning-ending double plays his defense turned for him.
Brazil starter Rafael Fernandes didn't last much longer. He walked three batters, hit one and threw a wild pitch as he struggled with his control for the majority of his three-inning sint. Fernandes allowed one run on two hits and walked three.
The Brazilians got off to a fast start with Orlando leading off the the bottom of the first with a single and advancing to second on a throwing error by second baseman Toritani. Orlando moved to third on a fly ball from Burin, and Reginatto drove in the team's first run with an RBI single through the left side of the infield.
Fernandes left a ball out over the plate to start the third, and Hayato Sakamoto punished him with a hard-hit single to center. Katsuya Kakunaka moved the runner over with a sacrifice bunt, and Fernandes plunked Uchikawa to put men on first and second.
Itoi singled to right to score Sakamoto from second. Fernandes labored through the rest of the inning, but was able to escape without allowing another run.
Japan pulled ahead, 2-1, on a sacrifice fly by Sakamoto in the top of the fourth, but Brazil clawed its way back during the bottom half against Toshiya Sugiuchi.
Reginatto doubled to lead off the inning and came home on a single to center off the bat of Reinaldo Sato.
Orlando laid down a perfect bunt for a one-out single in the fifth, then caught catcher Ryoji Aikawa flat-footed with a delayed steal. His efforts were rewarded when the red-hot Reginatto doubled into center to drive Orlando home and make the score 3-2.
The Brazilians have a quick turnaround with a game against Cuba on Saturday at 10:30 p.m. ET, which leaves little time to dwell on what might have been. Japan is scheduled to face China on Sunday at 5 a.m. ET. All games can be watched live on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes.
Jason Coskrey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.