WESTMINSTER – After sidestepping Italy, 9-3, Japan held off a late charge from the Netherlands, 3-2, to begin the tournament 2-0.
“Our dugout has been a lot of fun to start this thing,” said head coach Shannon Mortimer. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well they’ve gelled since getting together in Colorado. We’re just vibing right now.”
Japan didn’t have to wait long for its spark offensively. Bella Foran kicked off the contest with a triple to left-field, igniting the Japanese dugout. Two batters later, Ella Murchison drove Foran home to give her team the lead.
With the help of starting pitcher Grace Fujino, they would never look back.
“I think what helped me most today was my curveball and knuckleball,” Fujino explained. “My curveball allowed me to keep my pitches off of them while my knuckle kept them off balance.”
Fujino’s poise in the circle had everyone guessing. The 2022 grad who plays her club ball with SCT- India Chiles breezed through the first seven batters she saw.
Her command was so intoxicating, even the Netherlands coach forgot to substitute a player in the bottom of the third frame, ending the inning and keeping a two-run lead intact for Japan.
“Her composure on the mound is awesome,” said Mortimer. “She’s very confident in her abilities. Her knuckle is absolutely nasty and that’s what kept them off-balance all afternoon.”
Back at the dish, it was Jenaca Seki’s solo shot in the top of the third inning that gave Japan its two-run cushion.
“It was high and inside,” Seki said. “All I was trying to do was get my hands on top. I was able to line something out of the park.”
An inning later, Mari Takeda Bajan kicked off the fourth with a double that led to a run.
Though the Dutch countered with two solo home runs in the bottom of the fourth inning, Mortimer’s squad remained undeterred.
“Focused is the operative word,” added Mortimer. “They’re focused. They want to win, they want to compete and most importantly, they want to honor Japan.”
With time running out in the fifth, it was up to Takeda Bajan to take the reigns and close things out for Japan. In Fujino-like style, Takeda Bajan went three up, three down and struck out the final batter of the afternoon to solidify her team’s second win of the day, 3-2.
“A lot of us do things on the quiet side,” Mortimer said. “We had a couple of zoom practices before this so I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to go but I think they all bonded over a common purpose.”
“The best thing about this tournament is being able to play with other girls that look like me,” said Takeda Bajan.
Team Japan may not have fully known each other a week ago but after two wins on Friday, they are well on their way to making sure everyone at the International Challenge will remember who they were.