In Team Japan's case, ballpark required adjustments
Championship Round home more comfortable for those used to its quirky dimensions
SAN FRANCISCO -- Before Japan's run of World Baseball Classic dominance came to an end Sunday night at AT&T Park, manager Koji Yamamoto said he didn't instruct his hitters to change their approach in a ballpark that yielded the fewest home runs in the 2012 Major League Baseball season.
"Nothing special," the Japanese skipper said about his strategy.
Nothing special, unfortunately for Japan, is also a good way to describe the team's offense -- or lack thereof -- in its 3-1 Classic semifinal loss to Puerto Rico.
Japan's big bats went cold, as ordinarily reliable run producers Shinnosuke Abe, Nobuhiro Matsuda, Yoshio Itoi and Hirokazu Ibata combined to go 2-for-13, and the team as a whole managed six hits.
Abe -- Japan's most feared hitter and biggest home run threat -- became an example of how AT&T Park warrants adjustments if a hitter is to succeed in mastering it. In the bottom of the second, Abe crushed a Mario Santiago pitch toward the left-center-field gap. Instead of resulting in a double, as it might in another ballpark, it ended up in the outstretched glove of Puerto Rico left fielder Jesus Feliciano.
That's partly because to hit one out of AT&T Park in left-center field, you'd have to smash it more than 382 feet.
Japan had two extra-base hits -- a triple by Seiichi Uchikawa in the bottom of the sixth and another three-bagger by Takashi Toritani in the eighth -- during a game in which a two-run deficit may as well have been a 12-run deficit for the two-time defending World Baseball Classic champions.
Puerto Rico starter Santiago had to leave the game in the fifth due to forearm tightness, but not before he stymied Japan's hitters in 4 1/3 shutout innings. Santiago blanked Japan after coming off a rough outing against Team USA in a 7-1 loss on Tuesday. Prior to his lone Classic start, Santiago wasn't considered a formidable starter, having toiled for the better part of seven years in the Minor Leagues and accumulated a 4.04 ERA.
Japan's offensive woes could signal a lesson for the remaining three clubs in the Classic that have several players who have never had to deal with the quirky dimensions, spacious outfield and, at times, contentious weather conditions of AT&T Park. While the right-field corner is only 309 feet away, right-center field is another story, with the characteristic brick outfield wall jutting out to a distance of 421 feet in what the locals call "Triples Alley."
The wall in dead center field stands 399 feet away, and the left-field foul pole is situated 330 feet from home plate. The wind coming off of the San Francisco Bay doesn't make things any easier.
Out of the three remaining teams in the tournament, those that include members of the hometown San Francisco Giants may have an advantage in the next two days.
Puerto Rico's center fielder is Angel Pagan, who played his home games in 2012 at AT&T Park. Kingdom of the Netherlands may have the greatest advantage with its manager, Hensley Meulens, having had to contemplate how to handle the difficulties of hitting in this park for the past three seasons as the hitting coach for the Giants.
Indeed, having a San Francisco Giants player on the roster may have helped Puerto Rico become the first team to dispatch Japan in a World Baseball Classic. Alex Rios, whose two-run homer in the top of the seventh proved to be the difference in this contest, said that Pagan had some advice for Puerto Rico's hitters as they prepared to play at AT&T Park.
"He talked to us about how the wind and weather behaves here," Rios said, pointing out that Pagan's wisdom extended to the defensive side of the game as well. "He gave us a few tips about the right-field wall -- that you have to be really aware of when they hit balls really hard, to give a little room so that when the ball hits the wall, you have plenty of room to catch it."
When the difference between moving on to the final game of the World Baseball Classic for the third consecutive tournament and having to take a long flight back home is two runs, every factor becomes magnified, including how the ballpark can influence an outcome.
For Japan and manager Yamamoto, there will be four years to reflect before another Classic opportunity comes around. But as for his response to the question of whether AT&T Park may have gotten the best of his club, he maintained that it was of little consequence.
"I didn't really think so much about the difference of the ballpark," Yamamoto said.
Manny Randhawa is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.