The 2017 World Baseball Classic Japanese national team was the team that represented Japan for the 4th WBC tournament that was held in 2017. The team’s manager was Hiroki Kokubo, who was also in charge of the national team for the 2015 WBSC Premier12, and the team was nicknamed Kokubo Japan.
Kokubo had plently of regrets from the 2015 WBSC Premier12 that stemmed from his mistakes in commanding the team, his decisions in positioning players, and from his lack of experience.
Major leaguers like Ichiro Suzuki, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, Kenta Maeda, and others again turned down the offer to participate in this year’s tournament In the end, Norichika Aoki, who at the time played for the Houston Astros, was the only MLB player to join the team. That year’s lineup was again a disappointment for the fans.
On top of that, Shohei Ohtani, who had played a huge role in the 2015 WBSC Premier12, and was also expected to carry the team in this tournament, struggled in the send-off match and decided to opt out that year due to concerns with his right leg’s ankle. Kokubo Japan was again up against the wind, and their odds didn’t look good.
However, as the tournament started, the Japanese team quickly eased the fan’s concerns. Already in the first round of group B with Cuba, Australia, and China, their explosive batting lineup won their first game against Cuba 11-6. They then continued their initiative and won the next match against Australia 4-1. Right after that, in the 3rd match against China, they won 7-1. Japan blazed through round one with 3 consecutive wins.
The 2nd round’s first match was a tough fight against the Netherlands team, who had the Yakult Swallows slugger, Wladimir Balentien, in their starting 9. Japan was leading the match 6-5 until Takahiro Norimoto took the mound in the bottom of the 9th. He wasn’t able to get a firm hold on the situation and eventually let the opposing team equalize. But by the end of the extra innings Japan gave a final blow and won the match 8-6. After that they beat Cuba and Israel one after another. Having won all 6 of their matches, Kokubo Japan moved up to the championship round.
The semifinals took place in the MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers home stadium, Dodger Stadium, where they went up against the U.S. team, who they had faced twice in the past tournament, both winning and losing once to each other. In contrast to the Japanese team, where Norichika Aoki was the only big leaguer, the U.S. team was almost exclusively made up of major league all star players, which gave them an overwhelming advantage and they were the clear favorites to win the championship.
The match became a pitching battle between Samurai Japan’s starting pitcher, Tomoyuki Sugano, the Yomiuri Giants ace, who had performed exceptionally well in the tournament, and the U.S. national team’s starting pitcher, Tanner Roark, who was from the Washington Nationals.
The balance shifted in the top of the 4th inning, when Ryosuke Kikuchi, who is known for his excellent defense, made an error and gave away the initiative to the Americans. After that, Kikuchi scored a home run in top of the 6th inning, which tied the score and made up for his mistake, however when a reliever, Kodai Senga, stepped on the mound in the top of the 8th inning and brought fourth a dire situation with 1 out and runners on 2nd and 3rd base, the third baseman, Nobuhiro Matsuda, made a decisive error, which gave the opponents their winning point.
As a result, Japan lost 1-2, and it was their second consecutive 4th place finish in World Baseball Classic. After the tournament, manager Hiroki Kokubo stated,”I take full responsibility for the loss” and announced that this would be his last time as manager of the national team.