- The U.S. used some luck in addition to skill to edge past Japan in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic, and the road to a first championship will go through Puerto Rico.
Three thoughts on Team USA’s 2-1 win over Japan in the World Baseball Classic semifinals on Tuesday night.
A First for the Americans
When the WBC was introduced in 2006 it’s goal was as much if not more to continue baseball’s global growth as it was to boost the game in the United States. To that end, the fact that Team USA flamed out short of the championship game in each of the first three tournaments mattered little in the face of the way the event was celebrated in countries around the world. But the truth is the WBC has had a hard time catching on in this country—hurt both because many of the top American players choose not to participate and because it competes every four years with March Madness—and if the event is ever going to capture the hearts, minds and money of the American sports fan, something would have to change. The best way to do that, it was suggested, would be for the U.S. to at least reach the finals.
Baseball, more than any other sport, sells its history, but rarely does the game that has been played professionally in this country for more than 140 years get the chance to sell something never before seen. That is just what will happen on Wednesday when Team USA takes the field in its first WBC title game, opposite Puerto Rico.
This is another opportunity for baseball to ride the positive momentum of the past six months: an unforgettable 2016 World Series, a new collective bargaining agreement that ensures labor peace through 2021 and the awareness to publicly confront the issue of pace-of-play that threatens the game’s future in the 21st century. A win by the U.S. will not have anywhere near the historic significance of the Chicago Cubs’ title or the lasting impact of a CBA or rules changes, but it could go a long way toward making the WBC a more significant part of the sports calendar. Already players like Mike Trout have said they would participate in future editions, having been persuaded by the emotion and passion on display in the WBC. Having Trout, Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant—all of whom sat out this WBC—donning the red, white and blue in the future would further give the event the foothold it has long sought.
Team USA has certainly earned its place in the title game, beating defending champion Dominican Republic in an elimination game last weekend and then taking out an undefeated Japan team on Tuesday, thanks largely to a pitching staff that allowed just one run on four hits. But while the win over the DR featured the Americans at their highlight-playing best (a Giancarlo Stanton home run here, an Adam Jones over-the-wall catch there), the semifinal win owed as much to luck as skill. Team USA produced just six hits all night and both runs came as the result of miscues by Japan.
In the fourth inning, Christian Yelich hit a hard groundball at Japanese second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi, who was playing on the outfield grass to have extra time to react to a hard-hit ball such as that. Instead it bounced away into short rightfield for an error that allowed Yelich to hustle into second. After a strikeout by Nolan Arenado and a walk to Eric Hosmer, Andrew McCutchen delivered his latest clutch hit in the WBC by singling to left, scoring Yelich with the game’s first run.
After Kikuchi atoned for his miscue with a game-tying home run in the sixth, the Americans took the lead back thanks in part to another misplay by Japan’s defense. With Brandon Crawford on third and Ian Kinsler on second after both had picked up base hits, Adam Jones squibbed a ball up the third base line on the first pitch from Kodai Senga. With a contact play on, Crawford broke for the plate and third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda, perhaps rushing in an attempt to get Crawford or perhaps bothered by the wet grass from the incessant rain that fell at Dodger Stadium, failed to field the ball cleanly. Matsuda got the out at first but Crawford came across with what proved to be the game-winning run.
The U.S. should not count on getting that kind of help from Puerto Rico, which has made just one error in the first seven games of the WBC.
Finally, the finals
The 2006 U.S. team that featured legends like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Ken Griffey Jr. and Roger Clemens went 3-3 and lost in the second round. The 2009 squad had headliners like Jeter, Jones, Dustin Pedroia and David Wright and went 4-4, losing in the semifinals to eventual champion Japan at Dodger Stadium. And in 2013 the U.S. fielded its least star-laden team yet and went 3-3 and lost in the second round. Three events, a .500 record, no championships.
To get that first title the U.S. will have to avenge one of its two losses from this year’s event, against a Puerto Rico team that is not hurting for big names, what with Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Yadier Molina, Javier Baez and Carlos Beltran. Those players are just a few of the reasons why that squad has rolled through the bracket, going 7-0 and outscoring its opponents 55-18 (the U.S., by comparison, is 5-2 with a 33-21 run differential).
Four of those runs came against Team USA’s Marcus Stroman, who will start Wednesday’s final. The Puerto Ricans started last Friday’s game against Stroman by stringing together six straight hits and jumping out to a big lead, eventually holding on for a 6-5 win. Stroman did settle down after that rough beginning, not allowing another run in the rest of his 4 2/3 innings of work, but he needs to keep the U.S. in the game early.
In that same game the U.S. got to Puerto Rico’s starting pitcher, Seth Lugo, for three runs on five hits in 5 2/3 innings, and will get another chance at him on Wednesday. Both Jones and Buster Posey had home runs off Lugo in that game. Posey has sometimes been kept out of the starting lineup by manager Jim Leyland in favor of Jonathan Lucroy, but expect to see him in there against the Puerto Ricans in the final.