Shohei Ohtani and Kazuma Okamoto led two-time champion Japan to the World Baseball Classic semifinals for the fifth straight tourney in a 9-3 quarterfinal win over Italy on Thursday.
Before a crowd of 41,723 at Tokyo Dome, Ohtani allowed two runs over 4-2/3 innings and helped ignite a four-run third inning with a bunt single as Samurai Japan earned a trip to Miami and a semifinal against either Mexico or Puerto Rico on Monday.
Masataka Yoshida broke up the scoreless deadlock with a smashed groundout, and Okamoto, who drove in five runs, blasted a three-run homer to cap the rally.
Ohtani began to labor in the fourth and surrendered two fifth-inning runs on Dominic Fletcher's two-out flare single, after Ohtani helped Italy load the bases with two hit batsmen. The two-way star struck out five and walked a batter.
"We had a long stretch when many baseball fans were unable to come to the ballpark. But (the support tonight) made me feel baseball has really come back," Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said.
"Even I could feel the tension among the players to show all the many fans the true excellence of Japanese baseball, and that could be seen in how the game played out."
Asked to comment on Italian players, Kuriyama said, "In the end it was a one-sided game, but even with the pitchers who threw in a way to make Japan proud, they were able to square up some balls, so the game was in doubt. It was a win that was a little lucky."
Back-to-back fifth-inning RBI doubles from Munetaka Murakami and Okamoto made it 7-2. Yoshida homered before Murakami doubled and scored his third run of the game in a two-run seventh.
Fletcher, a minor leaguer whose older brother David is Ohtani's Los Angeles Angels teammate, homered off Yu Darvish in the eighth.
Yu Darvish gave up one run in two innings in relief, and said things went better this time around. The San Diego Padres workhorse had started Japan's crucial second Pool B game against South Korea but allowed three runs in three innings in what was his first outing of the year.
"I've begun to move a bit," said Darvish, who sacrificed spring training in Arizona to be with the national team from Day 1.
Ohtani, robbed of a first-inning RBI single when he lined out to Kansas City Royals shortstop Nicky Lopez in the shifted Italian infield, turned the tables on the shift in the third.
With Kensuke Kondo on first with his second walk, and no infielders on the left, Ohtani bunted that way. An errant throw by pitcher Joe LaSorsa put runners on the corners, and Yoshida brought Kondo home, although he, too, was robbed by Lopez.
Okamoto followed a Murakami walk by blasting a high lifeless slider into the stands in left.
Yoshida prevented two runs in the fourth with a gritty catch against the left-field wall after Italy managed a leadoff single and a two-out walk off Ohtani.
Hiromi Ito relieved and got Japan out of the soup, while Ohtani, stayed in as designated hitter, drew a leadoff walk to open the fifth.
A hit batsman and Murakami's first extra-base hit drove in one. Okamoto then ripped another double to plate two.
"I got a fat pitch and was able to crush it," Yoshida said of his first home run of the WBC. "Sorry for making you wait so long."