With Japan-U.S. Final at the W.B.C., the World Has Already Won
MIAMI — The games in this World Baseball Classic, collectively, have been like the very best postseason series, with the mayhem unspooling so fast that you cannot possibly keep it all together. It is a grand mosaic, each little piece its own story, all of them essential to the whole.
Now we come to the end, on Tuesday night, when the United States will try to defend its 2017 title against Japan, which won the first two tournaments in 2006 and 2009. Japan never led in Monday’s semifinal against Mexico until the moment the game ended, on a two-run double by Munetaka Murakami that capped a 6-5 thriller.
“Japan moved on,” said Benji Gil, the manager for Mexico, “but the world of baseball won today.”
When a team goes from winning to losing on the final pitch in the bottom of the ninth inning, and its manager can still say something like that, you know it’s been some kind of W.B.C. The wild penultimate game was the event in microcosm: a raucous sold-out ballpark, with action and characters embodying everything Major League Baseball could have hoped for when this tournament began.
The first batter was Randy Arozarena, a born showman who defected from Cuba in 2015 and has reveled in wearing the colors of Mexico, the country that gave him a home and made him a citizen. He later scaled the wall for a homer, lashed a clutch double and posed like a statue after both. Here, though, he whiffed on a 101.8-mile-an-hour fastball from Roki Sasaki.
Who is Sasaki? He’s 21 years old and threw a perfect game with 19 strikeouts last season. You’ll be hearing a lot more about him in a few years — but for now, of course, the biggest Japanese star is Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels. Ohtani led off the bottom of the ninth by drilling the first pitch for a double, and scored on Murakami’s winning hit.
It was just the kind of performance one would expect from the best player in the world, facing elimination against a top pitcher — Giovanny Gallegos, the closer for the St. Louis Cardinals — and coming through. There was Ohtani charging from the box, helmet flying, pulling into second base and raising his arms to the dugout, exhorting his teammates with a roar.
“Of course he hit the first ball and made it to second base,” Murakami said through an interpreter. “I think he gave us all the power and emotion.”
Masataka Yoshida — the prized winter acquisition of the Boston Red Sox, who had hit a three-run homer to tie it in the seventh — followed Ohtani with a walk. Murakami came up next, after three strikeouts and a foul out, a humbling display for a slugger who set the Japanese single-season record for homers by a native-born player last season, with 56 for the Yakult Swallows.
“I knew that so many times I had a chance to do it, but I couldn’t hit in those opportunities,” Murakami said. “Bunting kind of crossed my mind.”
Yet Murakami said the team’s manager, Hideki Kuriyama, had “told us just to do what you can” — and what Murakami does is hit homers. He didn’t quite do that off Gallegos, but his drive carried to the wall in distant left-center, sending his teammates racing around the bases and bounding from the dugout.
“It was kind of like an out-of-body experience,” said Japan center fielder Lars Nootbaar, adding that he knew off the bat that no coach would hold up the pinch-runner chasing Ohtani, Ukyo Shuto. “Pure joy. I didn’t want to get a penalty for too many men on the field. We had the whole team kind of waving him in.”
Nootbaar, from El Segundo, Calif., is the first player not born in Japan to make Japan’s national team. His mother is from Japan, his grandfather’s name — Tatsuji — is part of his middle name — and he is having a far more enriching experience than he would at spring training with the Cardinals.
“From the time that I touched down in Japan, the video crew and fans — it was 5:30 in the morning over there and they were going kind of crazy,” Nootbaar said. “So I kind of had an idea right then that it was going to be a wild ride.
“The fans, the way that they have accepted me as one of their own and the team, for them to be so accepting and welcoming of me, it’s exceeded all expectations.”
Nootbaar, 25, bats leadoff for Japan. He is just establishing himself in the majors, with power, a good eye at the plate and solid defense. But he hit only .228 last season, and the leadoff man for Team U.S.A. has been the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Mookie Betts — a six-time All-Star on a Hall of Fame track.
The loaded U.S. lineup stormed to the title game with a combined 23 runs here against Venezuela and Cuba. Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado have followed Betts in the order, and the ninth hitter has been Trea Turner, a $300 million player for the Philadelphia Phillies. All Turner has done is homer three times in Miami, including a go-ahead grand slam in the late innings against Venezuela.
On Tuesday, though, those U.S. mashers will face the starter Shota Imanaga, and then likely Yu Darvish, the ace of the San Diego Padres, who can beat any lineup. And among the other available relievers just might be that Ohtani fellow. (“It’s not a zero chance,” Kuriyama said through a translator.)
Relieving might be tricky, Ohtani said through an interpreter, because he will be the designated hitter on Tuesday and would somehow need to find time to warm up in the bullpen during the game. He understands the stakes, though.
“Obviously it’s a big accomplishment to get to the championship series, but there’s a huge difference from being in first and second,” Ohtani said. “So I’m going to do all I can to get that first place.”
Baseball has learned to never be surprised by Ohtani, and this stage seems made for his greatness. But whether he wins or the U.S. wins on Tuesday, Benji Gil was right: The world has already won.
James Wagner contributed reporting.