I loved this confusing Tokyo Olympic baseball tournament format vastly more than I liked trying to explain it, and for the first time since 1996 the most talented team in the tournament managed to cope with the extreme pressure that comes as a Japanese Olympic favorite.
For the first eight innings against the Dominican Republic, Japan’s hitters were, Jim Bouton once wrote, “so tight they squeaked when they walked.” Masahiro Tanaka had one bad inning and Koyo Aoyagi had two. Other than that, they played up to their ability as a whole, and did well.
The Japan team which could field a lineup of eight middle-of-the-order guys as it did against South Korea in Wednesday’s semifinal, was like a walking, breathing embodiment of Japanese baseball small-ball dogma.
Samurai Japan finished next to last in doubles, home runs and Isolated Power, surpassing only a Mexico roster deprived of 2019 Premier 12 hero Matt Clark.
Japan got on base better than any team other than the other pro team, South Korea, which grounded into a tournament-high five double plays, and led the field with 61 runners left on base.
There were 14 sacrifices in the tournament, half by Japan, which accounted for nine of the tournament’s 23 stolen bases. There were 27 total stolen base attempts, none against Japan, which led all six teams in turning double plays with seven.
Japan didn’t mash, but among the five top teams only South Korea was better than Japan at putting the ball in play.
As expected in a tournament mixing active elite professional players with others in various stages of retirement or development, Japan and South Korea were the best at putting the ball in play as hitters, and striking out opposing batters.
Defensively, we could see how well Japan played, but Japan’s pitchers allowed the second-highest BABIP in the tournament, .339, a result which absolutely screams “small sample size” and makes their 2.28 ERA quite remarkable considering how often balls found holes. Of course, they could survive that because they walked the fewest hitters, and allowed a tournament-low two home runs.