LOS ANGELES, Calif. – In thrilling, late-inning fashion, the United States found a way to knock off previously-unbeaten Japan 2-1 on Tuesday night to reach their first ever WBC Finals. They will face Puerto Rico for the third time this Classic in the championship tonight.
Japan, a team full of guys that we Americans know virtually nothing about, came into the semi-final following back to back sweeps in pool play, playing at home in Tokyo. In Pool B, they took down Australia, China and Cuba and in Pool E, they defeated Cuba once more, along with the Dutch and Israel.
The United States, fresh off a huge win over the Dominican Republic, I feel is FINALLY performing the way they should on this type of stage. Granted, if you really put the best of the best on the field for the United States (Kershaw, Trout, etc.), I don’t think the playing field would be as level. The story of the semi-finals for the U.S. was timely hitting and pitching, which is exactly what wins you baseball games.
I mentioned last night on Twitter (@SeatattheT) that Japanese starting pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano would be a nice pick up for fantasy owners in the future. He showed exactly why on the biggest stage of his career. Allowing just one unearned run in six innings, and then Yomiuri Giant fanned six and allowing just three U.S. singles.
In four seasons for the Giants, Sugano has posted a career 2.34 ERA, and a mesmerizing 1.8 BB/9. Apparently he has elbow ligament damage, but clearly that’s not much of an issue for Japanese pitchers as Masahiro Tanaka has been pitching through that for at least 2-3 years.
Washington Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark started on the bump for the U.S. and played his part well. In four innings, he allowed just three base runners (two singles and a free pass) and struck out one.
Neither team broke the score column until the top of the fourth when United States’ right fielder Andrew McCutchen singled Christian Yelich in, who reached on a fielding error by Japanese second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi. Those details really aren’t necessary, I just love these guys’ names. How can you not?
After throwing a scoreless fifth, Nate Jones came back out for the sixth inning and retired the first hitter he saw. Then, with the count in his favor 1-2, Jones had a 98 MPH fastball sent out to center field. McCutchen gave chase, but Japan had tied the game at one.
Andrew Miller took over for the United States and walked the first hitter he saw, MLB’er Norichika Aoki, on a 3-2 slider. With a runner on and one out, Miller struck out Yoshimoto Tsutsogoh, who had been having a stellar tournament thus far. Miller then got Sho Nakata to pop out to Kinsler to retire the side.
Each side went three up, three down in the seventh but good fortune was awaiting the United States in the eighth. After Giancarlo Stanton struck out swinging (weird), Giants’ shortstop (playing in his MLB rivals’ ballpark), laced a single to right to put the U.S. in business. Backed against the wall 0-2, Ian Kinsler hit a sharp double to center. Crawford was unable to score on the extra base hit, but the United States had a huge opportunity to get out in front late.
Following a mound visit, the hero of the tournament for the U.S. so far, Adam Jones delivered exactly what his team needed as he chopped the first pitch he saw from Kodai Senga to third, scoring Crawford and regaining the lead.
Giants’ and U.S.’ new arrival Mark Melancon took the hill in the eighth and allowed a leadoff single to Seiichi Uchikawa. Tetsuto Yamada sacrificed him into scoring position and Japan was threatening to tie the game once more. After Kikuchi went down swinging, Melancon walked Aoki and was removed from the contest by manager Jim Leyland.
Pat Neshek, the funky sidearm pitcher took over with two on and two out. With the count in his favor 1-2, Neshek hung a 69 mph change up that was crushed by Tsutsugoh. It looked gone off the bat, however with rain coming down in L.A., the ball hung up for McCutchen to easily camp under it and the United States escaped the eighth inning of play unscathed and with the lead.
Luke Gregerson needed just seven pitches to retire Japan in order in the ninth, clinching the United States first ever appearance in the World Baseball Classic Championship, and ended Japan’s hopes of winning three championships in four attempts.
What a game and what a team. The boys will take the field for the conclusion of the World Baseball Classic tonight, Wednesday, March 22 in the second rematch against Puerto Rico. Full coverage of the finale will be on MLB Network, with the first pitch scheduled for 9 p.m. EDT.
You know what they say, third time’s a charm.
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