For baseball fans, there’s never really been this kind of drama this early in the spring. And now there’s only one game left.
The defending champion team from the United States meets two-time winner Japan tonight in Miami for the 2023 World Baseball Classic title.
Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish, Japan’s two most well-known pitchers, each made the trek to the bullpen, perhaps getting ready to warm up for an appearance in the late innings.
Angels manager Phil Nevin said earlier Tuesday that Ohtani was cleared to pitch one inning in the championship game. Darvish, who pitches for the Padres, has made two appearances in this WBC, giving up three earned runs in five innings.
Leading off the bottom of the fourth, Japan first baseman Kazuma Okamoto homered to left-center off U.S. lefty Kyle Freeland, extending his country’s lead in the WBC title game.
Okamoto has averaged 33 home runs over the past five seasons with the Yomiuri Giants. Freeland had pitched a third inning, becoming the third U.S. pitcher of the night.
Freeman entered the game in the bottom of the third.
USA starter Merrill Kelly removed in the second inning after loaded the bases with one out. Lefty Aaron Loup came out of the bullpen for the Americans and got Lars Nootbar to ground out, plating the go-ahead run for Japan.
Loup, who pitches for the Angels, retired the next batter to escape further trouble.
Japan leads 2-1 after two innings.
Leading off the bottom of the second inning, Japan’s Munetaka Murakami crushed a solo home run to right field off U.S. starter Merrill Kelly, tying the game 1-1 after Trea Turner’s solo homer opened the scoring in the top of the inning.
Murakami played hero in the semifinal against Mexico, delivering a walk-off hit on Monday night. The 23-year-old slugger hit 56 home runs for Yakult in 2022, batting .318 with 132 RBI and a 1.168 OPS.
Team USA took a 1-0 lead with Trea Turner’s solo homer in the second inning, the star shortstop’s fifth home run of the tournament, tying the World Baseball Classic record.
The home run off Japan starter Shota Imanaga comes after Turner hit two in the semifinal against Cuba, a go-ahead grand slam in the quarterfinal against Venezuela and another in the group stage against Canada.
Turner signed an 11-year, $300 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies this winter.
Mike Trout turned a blooper into right into a one-out double in the top of the first inning, but Japan starter Shota Imanaga struck out Paul Goldschmidt and got Nolan Arenado to ground out to first to end the inning
The left-hander Imanaga has a 3.01 ERA in 970.2 career innings in Japan, Including a 2.04 mark in 24 games in 2022.
Angels teammates Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani led their teams onto the field at LoanDepot Park before the national anthems, with each superstar carrying their country’s flag down the foul lines.
After homers in the last two games, shortstop Trea Turner moves up in the lineup for Team USA. Other lineup changes include J.T. Realmuto starting behind the plate, Kyle Schwarber at designated hitter and Cedric Mullins in left field.
USA starter Merrill Kelly gave up two earned runs in three innings against Colombia in the group stage.
Shohei Ohtani was standing at the entrance of Japan’s clubhouse late Monday night, surrounded by a handful of reporters, and was asked what everyone in the baseball world wants to know:
Will he pitch Tuesday night against USA in the World Baseball Classic final, even facing Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout?
Ohtani smiled, was a bit coy, but revealed that if asked, if needed, he indeed will pitch, as well as be Japan’s starting DH.
“Mentally, I will be prepared to,’’ Ohtani said, “but obviously, I’ll be DHing, so it’s going to be hard to find that time to get hot in the bullpen.’’
Angels manager Phil Nevin said Tuesday afternoon that Ohtani was cleared to pitch one inning in the game.
– Bob Nightengale
Being back in the World Baseball Classic final is just where they thought they’d wind up all along.
Team USA laughed its way to a 14-2 victory over Cuba on Sunday night, and then turned the postgame into a comedy club routine.
Starter Adam Wainwright struggled in the opening inning, but St. Louis Cardinals teammate Paul Goldschmidt bailed him out with a two-run homer in the bottom of the first.
“He comes in after the home run,’’ Wainwright says, “and the first thing he does, he goes right to me and he says, ‘We got you.'”
Said Goldschmidt: “I mean, honestly, for me, that was one of my favorite home runs I’ve ever hit in my entire life.’’
Trea Turner, who had never batted ninth in a starting lineup until this tournament, has already set a USA record with four home runs and 10 RBI in the WBC.
“I kept saying every time he went deep,’’ USA manager Mark DeRosa said, “Who is the idiot that’s hitting him ninth? But that’s the way this lineup’s built.’’
– Bob Nightengale
Cuban bullpen catcher defects after team’s loss in WBC
Cuban bullpen catcher Ivan Prieto Gonzalez defected from Cuba following the national team’s loss to Team USA in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic in Miami.
The news was first reported by the Miami Herald. The outlet said the Cuban team was scheduled to depart Miami International Airport Monday following the team’s loss at loanDepot Park Sunday night, but before the flight took off, Gonzalez wasn’t on the plane and stayed in Miami.
Gonzalez played eight seasons in the Cuban National Series, the country’s top professional baseball league, with the Sabuesos de Holguín and Alazanes de Granma.
– Jordan Mendoza
Colorado Rockies closer Daniel Bard, after a difficult night sleeping, woke up Sunday feeling awful.
It got worse as the day went on.
Bard, the Team USA reliever who suddenly lost command of his pitches Saturday night, was the one whose errant fastball hit Houston Astros All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve in a 9-7 victory over Venezuela.
He hoped it would be nothing more than a sprained or badly bruised thumb, but Altuve was diagnosed Sunday morning with a broken thumb. He will undergo surgery this week and will be out eight to 10 weeks.
“I feel terrible,’’ Bard told USA TODAY Sports in the dugout before Sunday’s game against Cuba. “I was going sinker-in for a swing. I missed up and in. You just hate to see it. You saw my reaction.’’
Bard winced the moment the fastball hit Altuve, lowered his head, and then prayed he would be all right when he was on the ground in pain.
“You want to make some guys maybe uncomfortable in the box,” Bard said, “but not to the point of getting them hurt, ever.”
– Bob Nightengale
Six years after winning the 2007 World Baseball Classic title, Team USA has assembled its greatest group of Major League Baseball stars to date.
Managed by Mark DeRosa, the 30-man roster includes MVP winners in Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Paul Goldschmidt (Clayton Kershaw had to drop out), and some of the game’s other finest players like Nolan Arenado, Trea Turner, Tim Anderson and Pete Alonso.