Superstar Shohei Ohtani wobbled after a flying start but Japan's bats erupted to claim a place in the World Baseball Classic semi-finals

Tokyo (AFP) - Superstar Shohei Ohtani said Japan would “keep playing hard” at the World Baseball Classic after booking their place in the semi-finals with a dominant win over Italy on Thursday.

Ohtani wobbled after a strong pitching start but Japan’s bats erupted to claim a 9-3 win in Tokyo and set up a semi-final clash with either Puerto Rico or Mexico in Miami.

Ohtani has dazzled with the Los Angeles Angels since arriving in Major League Baseball in 2018 but he has yet to appear in a playoff game with them.

Japan would have been eliminated if they had lost their quarter-final with Italy and Ohtani was relieved to come through unscathed.

“It’s been a long time since I was in that type of situation, and it’s a difficult feeling with a particular kind of pressure,” he said.

“But our journey still continues so we have to keep playing hard.”

Ohtani held Italy scoreless for the first four innings but gave up two runs in the fifth before he was taken out of the game.

Japan still had enough firepower to get the job done, with Kazuma Okamoto hitting a three-run home run in the third inning and finishing the game with five RBIs.

Ohtani also contributed with his bat, scoring a run in the third inning and even getting on base with a bunt.

“It worked out better than I thought it would, so I’m glad I did it,” the big-hitting Ohtani said of his uncharacteristic approach at the plate.

- ‘Special chemistry’ -

Masataka Yoshida also hit a solo home run for Japan, who have never failed to reach the semi-finals since the World Baseball Classic began in 2006 and are looking to win their record third title.

Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said there was “a special chemistry” about his team.

“We have a lot of young players and they were eager to advance to the semi-finals so that they can test themselves against real major leaguers,” he said.

Major league star Yu Darvish pitched two innings of relief for Japan but gave up an eighth-inning home run to Dominic Fletcher.

Italy were playing in the quarter-finals for the first time, having come through as runners-up from a topsy-turvy Pool A being played in Taiwan.

The Italians were managed by former major league catcher Mike Piazza and featured Ohtani’s Angels team-mate David Fletcher in their line-up.

Piazza said it was “a tough night” for his team, whose pitchers gave up a total of eight walks.

But he vowed that they would come back stronger when the tournament returns in 2026 and said their success this year had been “good for baseball”.

“We didn’t do this just to play the tournament and come out here and have a good time and travel a little bit,” he said.

“This is a movement that we want to try to encourage to grow the game worldwide. There is a purpose to this.”