Baseball: Murakami, Yoshida power Japan to final WBC warm-up victory

Munetaka Murakami blasted a three-run first-inning homer and Masataka Yoshida drove in four runs as Samurai Japan cruised into the World Baseball Classic on a 9-1 win over the defending Japan Series champion Orix Buffaloes in its final warm-up game Tuesday.

The 23-year-old Murakami, who last year became Japan's youngest Triple Crown-winning hitter, had struggled so far in the team's warm-up games, but capped a four-run first-inning rally after being dropped down to the No. 6 slot in manager Hideki Kuriyama's lineup at Kyocera Dome Osaka.

Kensuke Kondo and Shohei Ohtani got things started with a walk and a single, with Kondo scoring from second on a single from Yoshida, who replaced Murakami in the cleanup spot against his former team.

"That's the first home run I've hit this season. I'd even forgotten how to do a home run trot," said Murakami, who hit 56 in the 2022 regular season as only the second Japan-born player to hit at least 55. "I put a good swing on the pitch I got and believe this is a result of all the work I've been putting in."

"I was honestly not happy about batting sixth, because I so wanted to be the cleanup hitter on this team. But we have a great team, the kind that can score at any time. If someone doesn't hit, there are plenty of guys to pick up the slack."

Lotte Marines pitcher Atsuki Taneichi, added to the roster for this warm-up game, walked the first two batters he faced but got out of the inning on a double play and a strikeout.

Yoshida, who joined the Boston Red Sox this spring and cut his spring training short to play for Japan, hit a bases-loaded gapper for a three-run second-inning triple in his old home park.

Another struggling Samurai Japan hitter this spring, three-time Pacific League home run champ Hotaka Yamakawa followed Kondo's fourth-inning double with an RBI single to make it 8-0.

"I'm... very, very happy," Yamakawa said, repeating "very" several times. "I switched my bat and got a good result. I'll keep doing my best going forward."

Yamakawa had more to celebrate in the eighth when he led off the home half of the inning with a homer.

Murakami, however, twice failed to do more damage, striking out to end the fourth with the bases loaded and going down swinging in the sixth with the bags juiced again.

After scoring one run over seven innings against two Japan pitchers borrowed from Lotte, Orix hitters got to face some familiar faces, with Japan reliever Yuki Udagawa and his Orix teammate, Soichiro Yamazaki, also borrowed for the night.

Japan will travel to Tokyo Dome on Wednesday for its final practice ahead of the start of Pool B play on Thursday, when it will face China.

"It really feels like we're ready to start the real games," Kuriyama said. "We've prepared really well, and I trust the players completely."

The team with the best record in the five-team pool that includes Australia, the Czech Republic and South Korea will take on the second-placed team from Pool A in Taiwan in an elimination quarterfinal game.

The Pool A winner will play Tokyo's runner-up with the two winning quarterfinalists advancing to the semifinals in Miami on March 19 and 20. The final will be held on March 21.

© Kyodo News