For the first time in the four tournaments of the World Baseball Classic, the United States is advancing to the finals with a 2-1 victory over Japan.
The game didn’t have all the twists and turns of yesterday’s Puerto Rico win over the Netherlands, but it was still a classic from the WBC. Most of the game was played in a steady rain and had it been a regular season game, it probably would have been postponed, although it was one of those rains that wouldn’t likely have stopped a game that had already started.
Both starting pitchers were on their game tonight. Japan starter Tomoyuki Sugano demonstrated that he has the stuff to pitch in MLB, going six innings and allowing just one unearned run on just three hits. He struck out six and only walked one.
His Team USA counterpart, Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark, did him one better. Roark didn’t pitch well in his first WBC game, taking the loss after giving up three runs in just 1 1⁄3 innings to the Dominican Republic in the first round. Getting the start tonight, Roark held Japan scoreless over four innings. He allowed just one hit, one walk, on hit batter and he struck out one.
Team USA broke out to a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning when Christian Yelich reached second with one out after second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi misplayed a grounder that took a bad hop on the wet field. After Nolan Arenado struck out and Eric Hosmer walked, Andrew McCutchen singled to left with two outs to score Yelich.
Kikuchi redeemed himself in the sixth inning when he homered to right field off of reliever Nate Jones.
It stayed that way until the eighth inning. Japan pitcher Kodai Senga started to leave everything up in his second inning of work and Brandon Crawford singled with one out. The next batter up, Ian Kinsler, lined a shot into the left-center field gap that looked like it had a chance to go out, but the heavy marine air kept it in the park for a double. Crawford held at third with one out.
The game was decided on the next play. Japan brought the infield in and USA manager Jim Leyland put on the contact play. Adam Jones hit a ground ball right at third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda, but on the wet turf, Matsuda couldn’t make the play cleanly. He still managed to throw to first and get Jones, but Crawford was safe at home with the second run.
Here’s that play.
Mark Melancon pitched the bottom of the eight for team USA and he gave up a single to lead off the inning. Here is where the difference between Japanese and American baseball came to the forefront. With only six outs left to go, Japan bunted with a player who hit over 30 home runs in NPB the past two seasons. It put a runner on second, but now with one out. Melancon struck out Kikuchi and then walked Norichika Aoki before giving way to Pat Neshek.
Neshek faced Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh with two out and runners on first and second. Tsutsugoh connected and put a charge into it, but it died in the Southern California night air and landed in McCutchen’s glove.
That was Japan’s final opportunity. Jim Leyland has made Luke Gregerson his closer and while the decision has been questioned, he’s been lights out in the WBC so far. Gregerson got two ground outs and then struck out Matsuda on a slider that was a foot outside.
With the win, the US advances to their first WBC final ever. They will take on Puerto Rico tonight (Wednesday) at 8 pm Central time, weather permitting. Marcus Stroman will pitch for USA and Seth Lugo will go for Puerto Rico.
This was Japan’s first loss of the tournament, and they are eliminated in the semifinals for the second straight tournament. But let’s hear it for the Team Japan band:
Tune in tonight. If the final lives up to the rest of this tournament, it’s going to be a great one.