FUKUSHIMA, Japan (AP) — Hayato Sakamoto hit a game-ending, bases-loaded single that capped a three-run, ninth-inning rally, lifting host Japan over the Dominican Republic 4-3 in the Olympic baseball opener Wednesday.
The Dominicans led 3-1 entering the ninth after starter Cristopher Mercedes dominated a lineup he knows well from his years in Nippon Professional Baseball. Outfielder Johan Mieses threw out a runner at home in the eighth inning to preserve the lead.
Jairo Asencio (0-1) got the first out of the ninth, then forgot to cover first on Yuki Yanagita’s grounder to first, letting him reach for Japan’s fifth hit of the game. He allowed two more hits before Kai Takuya scored the tying run with a sacrifice bunt.
After Tetsuto Yamada singled to load the bases, Jhan Martinez replaced Asencio. Sakamoto, the 2019 Central League MVP, then drove a ball to the warning track in center to earn the hosts a walk-off victory.
Just the way Japan wanted to open the tournament. The Olympics host nation is pursuing its first gold medal in baseball after the sport was restored to the Summer Games for the first time since 2008. Few medals would mean more to the baseball-crazed country, and expectations are high.
While Major League Baseball players aren’t at these Olympics, Japan’s professional league suspended its season to accomodate the Games. Manager Astunori Inaba has many of his country’s best on the roster, including former Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka, now with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Golden Eagles.
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