LOS ANGELES – For six games, Samurai Japan came up with the big hit or made the important play. But in the crucial stanza of their seventh game at this World Baseball Classic, on a rainy Tuesday night in Southern California, the game-changing moment slipped out of the their grasp.
Brandon Crawford scored the tiebreaking run when Nobuhiro Matsuda couldn’t cleanly field Adam Jones’ grounder to third in the top of the eighth, and the United States held on for a 2-1 win over Japan at Dodger Stadium to advance to its first World Baseball Classic final.
The United States will face Puerto Rico for the title on Wednesday.
“We weren’t able to reach our goal, so I’m just left with a strong feeling of disappointment,” Japan’s Seiichi Uchikawa said.
Japan’s four years of effort and preparation, after being stopped at this point in 2013, were undone by a razor-thin margin in a little over 3 hours.
A rare error by second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi in the fourth helped lead to Team USA’s first run, and Matsuda’s bobble allowed the second to score late in a tightly contested game.
“The players did their best,” Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said. “It’s a do-or-die semifinal. Although we lost, the players did their best, including in the games at Tokyo Dome.”
Uchikawa hit a pinch-hit single to start the bottom of the eighth with Japan down by a run. Norichika Aoki later drew a two-out walk to bring cleanup man Yoshitomo Tsutsugo to the plate. Tsutsugo, who hit three home runs during the Classic, got his bat on a 113-kph change-up that Pat Neshek left a little high in the zone. Tsutsugo didn’t get enough of it, and a long fly ball landed comfortably in Andrew McCutchen’s glove in right field.
U.S. closer Luke Gregerson retired the side in order on seven pitches in the ninth to seal the victory.
“One run,” U.S. manager Jim Leyland said of the difference between the two teams. “We happened to be going on contact on the ball,” he added, referring to Jones’ at-bat in the eighth. “We went on contact and Crawford scored. They booted the ball a little bit. They made one mistake at a critical time. We were able to take advantage of that.”
Sam Dyson pitched a scoreless inning to earn the win in relief, with Gregerson recording a save. Kodai Senga was charged with the loss.
Japan starter Tomoyuki Sugano was impressive, allowing just one unearned run on three hits in six innings.
“I understood it was an important game,” Sugano said. “I was particularly cautious about how I should pitch early, while trying not to be affected by the atmosphere, which I hadn’t felt before.”
Sugano struck out six and walked one.
“He’s a big league pitcher,” Leyland said. “He’s good. I was really impressed with him.”
Rain fell on Los Angeles for nearly the entire day, and a heavy mist was present throughout the game.
“This was probably the first time I’ve played outside in a tournament game like that,” said catcher Seiji Kobayashi. “Rain was falling from the beginning. But I think the pitchers were still able to make good pitches and we did everything we could to win.”
The slick conditions made it tougher than usual on the fielders, and likely had a role in the misplays by Kikuchi and Matsuda, who have won every Golden Glove at their positions since 2013.
U.S. pitcher Tanner Roark said things on the mound “started to get a little hairy,” but the Americans were able to avoid a fatal mistake.
“Who would’ve thought we’d be playing a game like this in Los Angeles,” McCutchen said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this type of weather in the years I’ve come here. So that’s what makes this game amazing. But I play for Pittsburgh, so I’m pretty used to the weather there. It’s not always great.”
Kikuchi’s error put Christian Yelich aboard, and the U.S. outfielder scored on McCutchen’s single to left to put America ahead 1-0 in the fourth.
Kikuchi made up for his miscue with a tying solo home run in the sixth.
A single by Crawford and a double by Ian Kinsler put runners on second and third with one out in the eighth. Jones grounded a ball to third, but Matsuda couldn’t get a good grip on it and was left with no play at home as Crawford scored.
The win gives the U.S. a chance to finally play for the WBC title after years of having the commitment of the nation’s best players and MLB team executives questioned.
“It means a heck of a lot,” said McCutchen, the 2013 National League MVP and a five-time All-Star. “We’ve got a great group of guys on this team who have dedicated this time to be able to try and win some ball games. Sacrifices had to be made, and there are no egos when that door opens. That’s what’s good about this team.”
Japan’s commitment has never been in doubt, but in the end, the team fell two wins short of its goal. Instead of getting ready for another game, the Japanese players quietly filed out of Dodger Stadium, where they won the title in 2009, preparing to go their separate ways ahead of the regular season.
“We had a lot of amazing games,” Uchikawa said, reflecting on the tournament as a whole.
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