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Japan’s small ball persona starting to fade at World Baseball Classic

TOKYO—Some heavy hitting has made Japan dangerous this year in the World Baseball Classic.

Japan has always had strong pitching, but when Yoshitomo Tsutsugo cracked a solo shot in the sixth inning to break a scoreless tie in Wednesday night’s second-round finale at Tokyo Dome, it was just the latest eye-opener.

The blast sparked the host country to a five-run inning that eventually ended in an 8-3 victory over Israel and locked up the top spot in Pool E with a 3-0 record as the Samurai earned as fourth consecutive trip to the WBC’s championship round, this time in Los Angeles.

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The Tsutsugo shot was Japan’s 10th of the tournament, tying the undefeated Italy for the most homers in the tourney.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect us to hit this many home runs (in the tournament),” Samurai Japan skipper Hiroki Kokubo said. “Once we got into the actual games, I think the swings of the players — other countries included — got a lot better, and we were able to hit a lot of home runs that impacted games.”

The impression of Japan as a bunt-heavy team is starting to fade among opponents.

“We’re not surprised, we obviously know they’re really good,” Israel’s Sam Fuld said. “Traditionally, they maybe rely on more of a small-ball approach than maybe our culture relies on, but we’re all well aware there are plenty of guys in this league who have 20, 30 home runs, so we know they have plenty of power in this country as well.”

Sho Nakata’s three homers have him tied with Tsutsugo for the team lead, Tetsuto Yamada has two and Seiji Kobayashi and Nobuhiro Matsuda have one apiece to account for Japan’s double-digit homer total.

“I think the guys are bigger and stronger. And I think that stereotype of small ball — that’s not what they’re about now,” said Phil Bradley, a former Yomiuri Giants player and current special assistant with the Major League Baseball Players Association. “I always say the average size of the Japanese player is bigger, and therefore, they’re going to be stronger. And therefore, they’re going to play a different style of game.”

Kokubo, though, isn’t ready to ask his players to start swinging for the fences.

“I don’t think we’re going to win by trying to match (other teams’) power,” he said. “We have to play the Japanese style of baseball — we have to start by playing tight defence, pitching well, and that starts mainly with (catcher) Kobayashi helping us establish a rhythm, and then looking for our opportunities on offence.”

Japan takes on the Pool F runner-up on Tuesday night (Wednesday morning in Japan) in the semifinals in Los Angeles.

When asked about trying to win Japan’s third WBC title, Kokubo didn’t get caught up in the euphoria of being undefeated.

“Before we start thinking about the final, we have to first get through the semifinal. That goes for any tournament,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough go and if we lose that game, it’s all over. We have to get ready to try and win that game.”