Japan's dominance at the Cal Ripken Major/70 World Series was on display again Sunday as the international power won its third straight World Championship at Cal Sr.'s Yard in Aberdeen.
West Raleigh, N.C., tried to do what no U.S. team has been able to the past two years, but Japan's players would have none of it.
The international juggernaut pounded West Raleigh pitching for 15 hits (seven for extra bases) and 11 runs en route to an 11-1, five-inning win in the World Series Championship Game.
"I really don't think it's a dynasty, we are not dominating any," Japan manager Koji Okumura said through translator Ty Date. "It was a very tough tournament, especially in the international."
Unlike last year, Japan did suffer a loss in pool play this year, losing to Dominican Republic, 9-8, on Wednesday. Japan avenged that loss with a 4-2 semifinal win two days later.
"They're going to hit the ball hard and put the pressure on you and pitch well," West Raleigh manager Tyler Highfill said.
Japan did both, scoring in every inning but the third, while limiting West Raleigh to four hits in the game and a single run in the bottom of the third.
"I thought Victor [Vargas] came out and threw very well for three innings. He kept them off balance pretty good, they got a couple shots in there, the grass got slick and we kicked a few around and that's a little uncharacteristic," Highfill said.
Good, bad bounces
Vargas, the starting West Raleigh pitcher, and his teammates, benefited from a good bounce to open the game, but he suffered on another bounce a batter later.
Japanese leadoff hitter Yuma Fujiwara drilled a shot off the right-center field wall, but the carom was played right to West Raleigh center fielder Tucker Jackson.
Jackson threw a perfect strike to shortstop Ryan Sholar to cut Fujiwara down.
Mizuki Kataoka, however, hit the next Vargas offering into the hole at shortstop. West Raleigh's Sholar, in an effort to keep the ball in the infield, dove to his right and deflected the ball away from oncoming left fielder Jeff Griffin.
By the time Griffin redirected himself and got to the ball, Kataoka was around second and cruising into third base with a triple.
Vargas struck out the next batter, Akito Shozu, but the inning continued as Yu Inaba lashed a 3-2 pitch into left field to score Kataoka.
Japan's additional scoring was lumped into multiples as three runs crossed the plate in the second; four more in the fourth and three in the fifth.
Japan's second inning started so innocently with Vargas striking out Kenta Tanaka. Ryugo Komachi, though, fueled the three-run rally, belting a full count pitch, high and well over the right field wall.
Taisei Akimaru followed with a double and moved to third on Yudai Yamamoto's sacrifice bunt. Fujiwara then added his second hit of the game, plating Akimaru.
The inning should have ended on a Kataoka grounder to short, but Sholar dropped the ball before he could throw it, allowing Fujiwara to score the unearned and fourth run.
West Raleigh's offense, meanwhile, was stymied by good defensive play from Japan.
Vargas was hit by a pitch leading off the second, and Sam Highfill followed with a ground ball single.
Adam Stuart, the extra hitter in the lineup, who came up big in Saturday's U.S. Championship win, hit the ball sharply, but right at shortstop Inaba who started a 6-4-3 double play.
In the third, West Raleigh again put its first two hitters on base as Japan reliever Shun Nakayama walked Jeff Griffin and Dominick D'Ercole.
Kohl Abrams followed with another ground ball to short, that Inaba turned into another 6-4-3 double play. Griffin had stolen third base before Abrams grounded out, allowing him to score on the play.
Sholar then added a long single off the wall in left but was stranded there, as Kyle Mott grounded out to end the inning.
'Hit the ball everywhere'
"Their pitching was pretty good, but they hit the ball everywhere and they also run the bases very aggressive," West Raleigh's Mott said.
As for series itself, Mott added, "This experience was amazing, just meeting the new kids from all around the world and getting to play them and interact with them, making new friends."
Japan opened its fourth inning with a single, hit batter, single and double that knocked Vargas from the mound.
Sholar came on and allowed two singles and two walks, but the damage was four runs, all charged to Vargas.
Abrams pitched the fifth, which started with an error on a hard one-hop ground ball to short. Two singles, a triple, a ground-rule double and a hit batter ensued, resulting in Japan's final three runs.
Kataoka had the double and finished as Japan's leading hitter, with three extra-base hits, a triple and two doubles. He also had a team-best three RBIs.
"First of all for the win today, I am pretty happy about it," Kataoka said through a translator. "The happiest thing is that I can contribute to the team, a couple of runs and I hit a couple doubles."
As for the tournament, Kataoka said he struggled a bit early on, noting the weight difference in the bats and the basepath distance. The bats are lighter in the U.S. than what Kataoka uses at home, he said.
West Raleigh's other two hits came in its final at bat. Pinch hitter Kevin Pitarra hit a two-out single and Wade Chandler doubled in his only at bat off Akito Shozu, the fourth Japan pitcher.
Shozu then struck out Abrams to end the game and set off a wild celebration among the three-time defending champions.
"Our goal was to win the US Championship at the beginning of the year, that's what these guys said they wanted to set out to do," West Raleigh manager Highfill said. "When you take Wake County and put 'em up against Japan, that's a tough matchup. I'm proud of my guys for coming out here and doing what they did."
Japan starter Yudai Yamamoto earned the win, yielding one hit, one walk, and one hit batter over two innings. He also struck out one.
Vargas suffered the loss, going three plus innings, allowing eight runs (seven earned) on 10 hits and two hit batters. He did not walk a batter and struck out three.
Japanese manager Okumura pointed to the walks issued by his pitcher in the third inning as the one thing that didn't seem to go right for his team. The second double play though, quieted the inning.
"The flow was going to that side, but we could stop that with the double play, so that was pretty big," Okumura said.
West Raleigh's Tucker Jackson summed up his time in Aberdeen: "First of all, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, just meeting new people all over the world. It's just an awesome thing."