It was the greatest pitching duel of the tournament for USA, knowing that one little mistake, one bad pitch, could end their championship hopes. USA’s staff never relented, giving up a solo home run, but that was it, shutting down Japan the rest of the game for their first trip to the WBC championship game.
The hero of the night was Ian Kinsler, who hit a one-out double off the left-center-field fence advancing Brandon Crawford to third base. Team Japan brought the infield in, and got just what they wanted when Adam Jones hit a slow roller to sure-handed third baseman Noburhiro Matsuda. If he fields the ball cleanly, Crawford is out by 10 feet at the plate.
But he dropped it. He recovered in time to throw out Jones at first base, but the critical run scored.
State of Championship Round: The emotional, dramatic World Baseball Classic has reached its final day. It will be USA against Team Puerto Rico, who’s undefeated in the tournament, and outscoring their opponents, 55-18.
Puerto Rico, who lost the title game in 2013 to the Dominican Republic, is seeking vengeance, desperately hoping to capture its first championship.
It will be Toronto Blue Jays ace Marcus Stroman pitching for Team USA against Puerto Rico starter Seth Lugo of the New York Mets.
Pivot point: Team USA was hanging on for dear life in the eighth inning when USA manager Jim Leyland called upon Pat Neshek with two runners on and two outs. Neshek, facing cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh, threw a 70-mph knuckle-curve and got him to fly out to right fielder Andrew McCutchen for the final out.
Neshek walked off the mound raising his hands high in the air, and USA was on their way to the championship game.
Man of the moment: USA left fielder Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen, who hit a huge two-run double that broke the game open in USA’s 6-3 victory over the Dominican Republic to vault them into the championship game, delivered once again on this night.
He hit a two-out, run-scoring single in the fourth inning that accounted for USA’s lone run, and the only blemish against Japan starter Tomoyuki Sugano.
And he caught the crucial third out of the eighth inning when Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh just missed hitting a home run.
Needing a mulligan: Team Japan second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi. Kikuchi cost his team the first run of the game, and nearly another, with blunders in back-to-back innings. It was in the fourth inning when USA outfielder Christian Yelich hit a sharp grounder towards Kikuchi, who was playing almost in shallow right fielder. The ball went right through him, Yelich kept hustling, and wound up on second. The error proved costly when Andrew McCutchen capitalized with a two-out, run-scoring single.
Kikuchi almost cost Japan a run in the third inning, too, when Giancarlo Stanton hit a tailor-made double play grounder to third baseman Nobuhiro Sakaomoto. Sakomoto threw to Kikuchi at second, who fired to first, for what appeared to be a double play. Only the replay showed that Kikuchi wasn’t even close to second base, and Posey was safe.
Although Kikuchi provided Japan’s lone run with his homer, he also struck out in the eighth with a runner on second base.
Manager’s special: Leyland raised some eyebrows when he pulled starter Tanner Roark after yielding two hits in four shutout innings, and throwing only 48 pitches. It lowered USA’s starter’s ERA to just 1.50 in 30 innings during the WBC.
Yet, despite Roark’s domination, Leyland called upon Chicago White Sox reliever Nate Jones.
It looked as if it would work to perfection as Jones pitched a 1-2-3 fifth inning, and retired the first four batters he faced. Yet, with one out in the sixth, and on a 1-and-2 pitch, he gave up a homer on a 98-mph fastball to right field to Ryosuke Kikuchi.
Leyland turned to left-hander Andrew Miller, who closed out the sixth, keeping the score tied at 1-apiece. They wound up using six relievers to close out the game.
What you missed on TV: The atmosphere was like a high-school football game with the damp air, fog rolling in, and a large band from Japan that constantly played and cheered when Team Japan was at the plate.
Yet, unlike the atmosphere in Miami against the Dominican Republic that unraveled Roark, it was as if he fed off the energy on this night.
Roark, who had pitched only 1 1/3 innings in the WBC, cruised on this night, pitching five shout innings in what he called the biggest game of his career.
“It’s usually the team that pitches the best normally has the best shot of winning,’’ Leyland said. “It’s very rare that you outslug anybody. You don’t do it for a whole season. Once in a great, great while, maybe.
“But for the most part, it’s about the pitching, catching the ball, throwing it to the right base, just playing basic baseball.
“There is nothing tricky about it.’’