It may be more than a week before our Nationals and the rest of Major League Baseball begin the 2023 season, but last night's World Baseball Classic semifinal between Mexico and Japan proved that baseball is already back and bigger than ever.
The penultimate WBC matchup offered some of the best performances fans will see all year in a nail-biter that saw underdog Mexico lead for most of the game. Angels pitcher Patrick Sadoval established himself early for Mexico, striking out the side in the first inning. Sandoval dueled with his Japanese opposite, 21-year-old starter Roki Sasaki, as both men faced the minimum in the first three innings. Outstanding pitching against such explosive lineups created tremendous tension for the audience as they waited for power hitters like Joey Meneses or Shohei Ohtani to make some noise with their bats.
Nationals fans will eagerly await the MLB arrival of young ace Sasaki, who was nearly perfect in his start until he gave up two bloop singles followed by a home run from Luis Urias on what appeared to be his only mistake pitch to that point in the game. Although he allowed Mexico to take the lead, Sasaki fastball hovered around 100 mph for his entire outing and his splitter was untouchable.
Sasaki becomes a free agent in 2027, but could join a major league club sooner if his Chiba Lotte Marines post his contract before that. Nationals fans will have their fingers crossed that he signs with the Washington, becoming yet another ace to be associated with a franchise that is known for stellar starters like Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Jordan Zimmermann.
Japan trailed Mexico by three for the first six innings, loading the bases twice but failing to capitalize. The team's offensive struggles were best represented by reigning NPB Central League MVP and triple crown winner Munetaka Murakami, who despite his talents struck out in his first three at-bats, each time with at least one runner on. Mexico left fielder Randy Arozarena displayed tremendous defense to keep Japan off the board, making several great catches including a home run robbery in the 5th inning. He appeared more than confident in his team's lead, cheerfully tossing souvenir balls into the stands throughout the middle of the game.
The Japanese lineup was tested in the seventh inning when newly-minted Boston Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida stepped to the plate with two outs and two runners on. The right handed batter took an inside pitch at his knees and drove it sailing down the foul line to right field, so high that the cameras lost the ball. The crowd erupted at the ball hooked inside the foul pole for a home run, knotting the game at three runs to three.
Mexico sought to retake the lead in the eighth, Randy Arozarena shined yet again with a double to right field. Alex Verdugo drove him in with another double, followed by a single from Washington National Joey Meneses, who stole second base to put runners at second and third with two outs.
Mexico nearly regained a three-run lead when Issac Paredes hit a hard ground ball between third base and short, driving home Verdugo and sending Meneses sprinting for the plate. Masataka Yoshida hurled the ball in from left field and Joey was tagged out in a thrilling play at the plate by catcher Takua Kai.
Japan displayed some classic base-to-base offense in the bottom of the eighth, pushing one run home on a hit-by-pitch, a single, a sacrifice bunt, and a sac fly. Leadoff hitter Lars Nootbaar was left on first when two-hitter Kensuke Kendoh struck out to end the inning.
Batting third for Japan was DH Shohei Ohtani, who was set to lead off in the bottom of the ninth. Cameras frequently cut to Ohtani pacing back and forth in his dugout, preparing for his upcoming at-bat while the rest of his team took the field to keep Mexico from extending their one-run lead. The top of the ninth was no trouble for closer Taisei Ota, who quickly retired the side without giving up a hit.
When the bottom of the inning finally arrived, Shohei Ohtani stepped to the plate. The whole crowd knew that there was no hitter on earth that Japan would rather have in this situation. No outs, no runners on, but Ohtani can tie this game with one swing. Shohei pounds a 101 mph line drive into the gap and bolts his way into second base for a double. Cardinals pitcher and Mexico closer Giovanny Gallegos gave up a walk to Yoshida, bringing struggling star Munetaka Murakami to the plate.
Murakami, despite being the best hitter in Nippon Professional Baseball, has struggled for the entire WBC and was 0-4 when he stared down Gallegos with runners on first and second and no outs. Part of the magic of baseball is that a player's struggles can disappear with just one swing, and that's exactly what Murakami did, hammering a fastball 111 mph off the outfield wall. Ohtani soared home and pinch-runner Ukyo Shuto tore from first base towards the plate with lightning speed. Alek Thomas threw the ball in to his cutoff man, who hastily threw the ball in wide of the plate. Team Japan teemed from the dugout to mob Ohtani, Shuto, and Murakami at the plate in a walkoff win for the ages.
Japan faces the United States tonight in the WBC Championship game, and the eyes of the baseball world will be watching intently yet again to see what surprises are in store for baseball's biggest stars.