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Baseball is back: Host Japan welcomes Olympics return with walk-off win

A hugely popular sport in Japan, the Tokyo Games organizers proposed including men’s baseball and women’s softball in the Olympics.
Image: Dominican Republic v Japan
Catcher Charlie Valerio of Team Dominican Republic puts the tag on Masataka Yoshida of Team Japan at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium on Wednesday. Koji Watanabe / Getty Images

Baseball is back.

After 13 years of waiting, fans once again tuned in to watch baseball at the Olympics with host nation Japan sealing a 4-3 walk-off victory against the Dominican Republic in the opening game Wednesday.

Baseball was played as a “demonstration sport” at a number of Olympic Games before being adopted as a medal sport in Barcelona in 1992, It was then played until the 2008 Beijing Games before being removed.

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The International Olympic Committee invited the Tokyo Games to suggest the temporary inclusion of additional sports, and the Tokyo organizers proposed men’s baseball and women’s softball — hugely popular sports in Japan.

The pressure was then on Japan to bring home a win in the Olympic baseball opener Wednesday — a feat it managed despite being down in the ninth inning.

“I’m very relieved to be able to have our first win today,” Hayato Sakamoto, a Japanese shortstop and star of the game, said through an interpreter. “I believe the first half of the match had a very heavy atmosphere and everybody was very nervous.”

The Japanese pulled through after Sakamoto struck a ball to the warning track allowing the hosts a walk-off victory.

Major League Baseball fans may pick up on several differences in Olympic baseball.

For one, apart from the medal round matches, a game is over when a team is losing by at least 10 runs after seven innings, according to The Associated Press.

MLB Statcast is also not installed, so there is no analysis of spin rates or exit velocity, according to the news agency. For many it will be like watching baseball go back in time.

Fans of MLB teams might recognize some of the players, however: Todd Frazier, Scott Kazmir, David Robertson are part of the U.S. team, while José Bautista, a six-time all-star MLB pick, plays for the Dominican Republic Olympic team.

Six nations are competing in the sport at the Games: Japan, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, the United States and Israel.

Cuba has won gold at three of the five official competitions, while the U.S. won gold at Sydney in 2000 and South Korea won at Beijing in 2008. Japan won bronze medals at Barcelona in 1992 and in Athens in 2004, and came away with a silver at Atlanta in 1996.

To win gold would be a momentous occasion for Japanese baseball fans.

The opening game Wednesday was held at the Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, in Fukushima prefecture north of Tokyo. The area was devastated by an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011, a triple catastrophe that killed thousands.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Michael Fiorentino contributed.