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The U.S. and Japan were the only undefeated teams remaining in the six-nation Olympic baseball tournament when they took the field at Yokohama Stadium on Monday night. Masahiro Tanaka, one of Japan’s most celebrated players, toed the rubber for the hosts. A spot in the semifinals was on the line.
In an alternate universe, the scene in this baseball-obsessed country would have been raucous as the matchup carried into extra innings. But the game, like every event at these pandemic-stained Olympics, was deprived of a stirring atmosphere.
Instead, the ballpark was mostly empty as Japan outlasted the Americans 7-6 in 10 innings on Takuya Kai’s walk-off single off Edwin Jackson.
With the win, Japan advanced to the semifinals to play South Korea, guaranteeing a chance to play for a medal. The Americans will next play an elimination game Wednesday against the winner of Tuesday’s meeting between Israel and the Dominican Republic.
Japan jumped out to a 2-0 lead against right-hander Shane Baz — one of the Tampa Bay Rays’ top five prospects — before Triston Casas clubbed a go-ahead three-run home run in the fifth inning.
It was the second homer in two games for the 21-year-old Casas, the top-ranked prospect in the Boston Red Sox farm system. He clubbed it after Tanaka’s early departure. The former New York Yankees right-hander was chased with two outs in the fourth inning on Nick Allen’s RBI double. He surrendered three runs on six hits with six strikeouts across 3 2/3 innings.
Tanaka would have preferred not to pitch in the Olympics. Ideally, he would have re-signed with the Yankees during the offseason when his seven-year, $155-million contract expired. But the Yankees chose to not give him his market value. Tanaka, who didn’t want to play for another major-league team, returned to Nippon Professional Baseball’s Rakuten Golden Eagles on a two-year deal.
Tanaka began his professional career with Rakuten in 2007. The next year, at age 18, he pitched for Japan at the Beijing Olympics.
“I didn’t come home because I wanted to participate in the Olympics,” Tanaka said in Japanese. “But I thought I would have a chance to participate if I’m in Japan. I wanted to be selected.”
Tanaka was the youngest player on Japan’s roster in 2008. The experience ended in disappointment without a medal. Thirteen years later, he’s the oldest player on the country’s roster, with a chance to take gold, a chance he didn’t envision just months ago. On Monday, despite his quick exit, the odds improved in front of empty seats.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.