Late comeback keeps Japanese party going after softball success

FUKUSHIMA, JAPAN - JULY 28:  Hayato Sakamoto #6 of Team Japan celebrates his walk-off single to center field to win 4-3 against Team Dominican Republic during the baseball opening round Group A game on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium on July 28, 2021 in Fukushima, Japan. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
FUKUSHIMA, JAPAN - JULY 28: Hayato Sakamoto #6 of Team Japan celebrates his walk-off single to center field to win 4-3 against Team Dominican Republic during the baseball opening round Group A game on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium on July 28, 2021 in Fukushima, Japan. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)

Japan's men scored three in the ninth inning to make a winning start against the Dominican Republic in Fukushima less than 24 hours after the women's softball gold.

A winning start for Japan's baseball team, but not how they might have planned it.

Less than 24 hours after the hosts' women softballers defeated the United States to retain their Olympic title, the men were expected to open their Tokyo 2020 campaign with victory over the Dominican Republic in Fukushima.

The visitors from the Caribbean had other ideas, taking a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth.

But closer Jairo Asencio failed to finish the job as Japan scored three to claim a 4-3 victory.

The tournament format means group phase defeats do not count for too much with all six teams - in two pools of three - going through to a slightly complex knockout phase.

However, it does show that no team can be taken lightly as the pre-tournament favourites bid to emulate their softball-playing compatriots who brought joy to the nation with their success.

New Sport on the Block 2020: Baseball/Softball
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Baseball and softball have been approved for Tokyo 2020, the first time those sports have been in the Games since Beijing 2008.

Softball star Ueno revels in second golden moment

Japan's women began their victorious campaign two days before the Opening Ceremony in Fukushima, one of the cities ravaged by the 2011 Tohuku earthquake and tsunami.

Playing their opener in Fukushima meant a great deal to star pitcher UENO Yukiko who started the gold medal game in Yokohama, just as she had at Beijing 2008.

"I channeled these last 13 years into every pitch I threw here, and I left everything out there in Fukushima. Same goes at Yokohama. That’s how my Games went," she said.

"We started the entire Games carrying the hopes and expectations of Fukushima. There was a lot of attention on us. We began the Olympics with so much on our backs, so many feelings and emotions."

Head coach and two-time medallist UTSUGI Reika added, "When it was decided five years ago that Fukushima would be a host city and kicking off the entire competition, I was determined to start with a win to inspire all of Japan.

"This means a lot to us softballers who go back a long way with Fukushima. We hope the people in Fukushima will stay strong and keep moving forward."

Ueno pitched five innings before being replaced by GOTO Miu, but returned to close out victory in the seventh.

Utsugi commented, "When I took this job the mission was to win back-to-back. The coaches told me Ueno could go so I asked her to close. After that shot to third I thought they were starting to find their timing with Goto so I made the change. I was prepared to make any decision to help us win."

Despite turning 39 last week, Ueno has no immediate plans to retire citing two-time gold medallist Michele Smith - who pitched in the Japanese league into her 40s - as an inspiration.

She said, "This gold medal is very rewarding. I look up to Michele Smith and hope to have a career as long as her, but I have no idea where I go from here right now."

YOKOHAMA, JAPAN - JULY 27: UENO Yukiko (L) and Manager UTSUGI Reika of Team Japan pose with Ueno's gold medals after defeating Team United States 2-0 in the Softball Gold Medal Game on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Yokohama Baseball Stadium on July 27, 2021 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)
YOKOHAMA, JAPAN - JULY 27: UENO Yukiko (L) and Manager UTSUGI Reika of Team Japan pose with Ueno's gold medals after defeating Team United States 2-0 in the Softball Gold Medal Game on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Yokohama Baseball Stadium on July 27, 2021 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)
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Japan's men produce sensational late comeback

Japan's baseball opener was a pitchers' duel to start with as YAMAMOTO Yoshinobu and Cristopher Mercedes gave up just three hits between them in six innings.

But AOYAGI Koyo was immediately in trouble after relieving starter Yamamoto.

Juan Francisco and then Erick Mejia had base hits down the middle, before Charlie Valerio drove in both runners with a double to left-centre field for a 2-0 lead.

Japan pulled one back in the bottom of the seventh when MURAKAMI Munetaka grounded out to first base with ASAMURA Hideto getting home from third.

The home team almost levelled as the rain came down in the eighth, but a superb throw from Johan Mieses saw YAMADA Tetsuto tagged as he tried to slide into home plate.

Their task was made harder in the top of the ninth as Mejia scored again to make it 3-1, this time on a Gustavo Nunez RBI double to the wall.

Dominican Republic closer Asencio was soon in a jam as Murakami scored in YANAGITA Yuki with a one-out RBI single and GENDA Sosuke advanced to third.

KAI Takuya's bunt worked to perfection and Genda got home to level the scores with the winning run, Murakami, on third base.

Asencio was replaced by Jhan Marinez, but it was to no avail as SAKAMOTO Hayato smashed him into deep centre field and Murakami came home for a win greeted with joy and relief on the Japanese benches.

The Dominican Republic meet Mexico on Friday (30 July) with the final Group A encounter between Japan and Mexico taking place the following day.