The World Baseball Classic was indeed a classic. It could be argued that the two best teams made it to the finals, and that the last game lived up to its hype. Let’s break down Japan’s final three games.
Quarterfinals – Thursday, March 16 vs. Italy
Starting Pitcher: Shohei Ohtani
Neither team scored until the bottom of the 3rd, Masataka Yoshida hit a run-scoring grounder. A walk later, with two men on base, Kazuma Okamoto hit a three-run home run, which atoned for his base-running error the previous inning. Ohtani mostly cruised through the first four innings but ran into trouble in the 5th. His slider stopped being effective, he hit two batters, and was pulled after giving up a 2-run single. His mates made up for it and then some in the bottom of the frame, as Munetaka Murakami and Okamoto hit back-to-back doubles to score three runs. Yoshida led off the 7th with a solo home run, and Sosuke Genda drove in another run later in the inning. Team Italy managed one last run – a solo home run from Dominic Fletcher off Yu Darvish. That was all. Japan reached the semifinals for the fifth straight WBC.
Semifinals – Monday, March 20 vs. Mexico
Starting Pitcher: Roki Sasaki
Sasaki pitched well but allowed two hits early in the 2nd: one beat the shift, the other was a blooper to shallow left. He paid the price, though, as Luis Urias hit one to deep left-center, giving Mexico an early 3-0 lead. Japan knocked on the door throughout the game but simply could not break the shutout. Until the bottom of the seventh, that is. Kensuke Kondoh hit a single, Ohtani walked, which allowed Yoshida to provide the drama. His towering 3-run home run to deep right tied the game up! Team Mexico was not ready to hand the game to Japan, though. The next inning, they knocked around Yoshinobu Yamamoto, knocking him out of the game while regaining the lead. They pushed a second run across home off reliever Atsuki Yuasa, but an attempt for a third run was snuffed out when Yoshida threw the trailing runner out at home. That would prove crucial. In the bottom of the 8th, Japan produced a Japan-style run: with two men on, Genda advanced them both into scoring position with a sac bunt, and pinch-hitter Hotaka Yamakawa brought one home on a sacrifice fly. Cue up the dramatics. In the bottom of the 9th, the heart of the Japanese order ended the game. Ohtani led off with a double, Yoshida walked, was pulled for pinch-runner Ukyo Shuto, and Murakami smashed a 1-1 pitch off the wall in center. Walk-off win.
Finals – Tuesday, March 21 vs. USA
Starting Pitcher: Shota Imanaga
The first run of the game saw Trey Turner take Imanaga deep to left in the top of the 2nd for his fifth home run of the tournament. However, yesterday’s hero, Murakami, evened the score with a mammoth home run of his own in the bottom of the frame. Japan loaded the bases with just one out, and Nootbaar’s grounder to first was soft enough to score a run. Okamoto added to the lead with a lead-off solo home run in the bottom of the 4th. The score remained the same until the top of the 8th when Kyle Schwarber took Darvish deep, bridging the gap to one run. After a scoreless bottom of the inning, the stage was set: Shohei Ohtani on the mound, and with a chance to tie the game, Mike Trout due up. It went to a full-count, and Shohei’s slider induced a swing and a miss to end the game! Samurai Japan wins!
Finally, we cannot ignore the biggest baseball story in NPB. Former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer signed a one-year deal with the Yokohama DeNA Baystars. The 32-year-old righty, who won the 2020 Cy Young Award with the Cincinnati Reds, has stated on several occasions that he dreamed of one day playing in Japan. His long MLB suspension for allegations of physical and sexual violence ended earlier than the original sentence stipulated, but no MLB team signed him to a league-minimum contract after the Dodgers unconditionally released him. The Baystars, the lone NPB team with a female owner, chose to look past his off-field behavior, and signed him for $4 million. The verdict is out on whether this ends up being a fruitful deal for both parties.
The long NPB offseason is almost over! Opening Day is March 30 (Hokkaido) and we will report on the first weekend of NPB action in less than two weeks’ time!