LOS ANGELES -- Throughout their first three World Baseball Classics, the United States' burly batting order had some of the most prodigious sluggers in the Major Leagues, but that never got the Americans to the tournament's final game.
So naturally that changed in a dramatic 2-1 semifinal victory over two-time Classic winner Japan on an unseasonably wet and chilly Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, courtesy of a regular old ground ball.
:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::
With the score tied at 1 in the top of the eighth, Adam Jones' fielder's-choice RBI grounder was bobbled by Japan third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda long enough to allow Brandon Crawford to score from third base. Team USA's bullpen held the lead, and now the Americans will finally play for a Classic crown. The U.S. will be the road team against Puerto Rico here on Wednesday night at 9 ET on MLB Network and MLB.TV, with right-hander Marcus Stroman starting for Team USA against Puerto Rico righty Seth Lugo.
Rogers: USA-PR a final worthy of emotional WBC '17
"It means a heck of a lot," outfielder Andrew McCutchen said of the U.S. finally clearing the semifinal hurdle. "We've got a great group of guys on this team who have dedicated this time to be able to try and win some ballgames. Sacrifices had to be made, and there are no egos when that door opens."
The intense game was tied at 1 when Crawford, who had singled with one out, advanced to third on a tough slog over the soggy infield dirt on an Ian Kinsler double off the wall in left-center. Jones was facing a tough challenge in Japan reliever Kodai Senga, who had struck out the side in the seventh.
Jones beat the ball into the wet turf, and Crawford was off from third on a contact play. The ball popped out of Matsuda's glove long enough for Crawford to score prior to throwing Jones out at first, but the damage had been done.
For Japan, it was a strange reversal of reputation. The teams that won the first two World Baseball Classics were known for limiting mistakes, for playing with precision and discipline, for combining fundamentals with stingy pitching and timely hitting. On Tuesday, its defense failed them on plays that are usually made.
"Well, the team that makes mistakes will lose," Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said through an interpreter. "That's what it means. I cannot blame them, though, for doing that."
Neither manager blamed the weather for any of the slip-ups, citing the fact that both teams had to play under the same conditions. But it was noticeable that the rain, which fell throughout the Los Angeles area during the day and slowed to a steady mist or sprinkles for most of the early innings, somewhat affected the proceedings. USA starter Tanner Roark said the mound got a little "hairy." McCutchen, who plays for the Pirates, said it reminded him of Pittsburgh in April.
"That's why this game's a great game," McCutchen said. "You never know what you're going to get. Who would have thought we'd be playing in this type of game in Los Angeles?"
Luke Gregerson, the last of six relievers used by Team USA in the game, closed out the win with a quick and perfect ninth inning, and the Americans celebrated on the field, albeit in subdued fashion, after having booked a ticket for the World Baseball Classic final. More >
Japan right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano was phenomenal, pitching six innings and giving up the one run, which was unearned, on three hits. He struck out six and issued one walk. The only blip on his line score came in the top of the fourth, when a rare error by Japan second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi on a hard-hit grounder by Christian Yelich gave Team USA a baserunner and McCutchen's two-out single drove him in for a 1-0 lead. More >
Roark was up to the task as well, but his scoreless two-hit body of work only lasted four innings because of a 50-pitch limit (he threw 48). Two frames later, reliever Nate Jones gave up a solo home run over the right-field wall off the bat of Kikuchi. More >
The U.S. bullpen was up to the task, however. Andrew Miller wiggled out of the sixth, and Sam Dyson got three consecutive ground-ball outs in the bottom of the seventh. The eighth was a tandem affair of Mark Melancon, who got two outs but also put runners on first and second, and Pat Neshek, who got Japan cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh to fly out to right to end the threat, setting up Gregerson for the swift save. More >
In the end, it wasn't a series of monstrous home runs that got Team USA to uncharted territory in World Baseball Classic play. It was the little things.
"One run," U.S. manager Jim Leyland said. "They booted the ball a little bit. They made one mistake at a critical time. We were able to take advantage of that."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Cutch in the clutch: Counting McCutchen's two-run double in their last game, a victory over the Dominican Republic, the Pirates outfielder had driven in his team's last three runs despite entering Tuesday's game with only two hits in his last 13 at-bats. More >
"It's been really good, been a lot of fun," McCutchen said. "But just being in this position, I'm looking forward to tomorrow. It's a first, so I'm just happy to be a part of that."
Kikuchi makes up for miscue: Kikuchi's error on Yelich's ground ball onto the outfield grass in the fourth inning led to Team USA's first run. But Kikuchi got it back two innings later, blasting his home run 378 feet just over the outstretched glove arm of McCutchen in right field. It was Kikuchi's first homer of the tournament.
Jones comes through again: It wasn't exactly a hard-hit ball, but for Jones, who beat Colombia in the first round with a walk-off single and robbed Manny Machado of a home run with a leaping catch at the wall in the huge win over the Dominican Republic to clinch Team USA's appearance in the semifinal, he managed to be the man in the moment again. Jones did what he had to do, putting the ball in play against Senga, who had fanned the side in the seventh and opened the eighth with a whiff of Giancarlo Stanton, and it was enough for a lead that would hold up. More >
"We've got what we've got, and everybody in there, all the starters are great pitchers and they've done it before. They've played in big games before. It's a chip, yes, I guess you could say that. But, overall, we just go out there and do our stuff and not let things get inside our heads." -- Roark, on whether the U.S. team's pitching staff has been disrespected by the media More >
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
Leyland asked for a review of a groundout by Eric Hosmer with one out in the second inning on a close play on a throw from third baseman Matsuda to first baseman Sho Nakata. The call was confirmed after a review of 42 seconds.
Leyland successfully had a play reviewed in the top of the third inning. With Buster Posey on first base, Stanton hit a hard grounder to third baseman Matsuda, who made a nifty diving play and threw to second baseman Kikuchi, who appeared to nail Stanton at first for a double play. However, Leyland wanted the transfer at second reviewed, because it appeared that Kikuchi was off the bag before he threw to first. Leyland was correct, and the call was overturned after a review of 1 minute, 1 second.
In the bottom of the third, there were two reviews. The first came when Kokubo challenged a play at second base in which Seiji Kobayashi slid into second on a fielder's-choice grounder by Tetsuto Yamada. He was ruled out, and the call was confirmed after a review of 41 seconds.
On the next play, with Kikuchi at the plate, Yamada took off to steal second and was ruled safe on a close play that Leyland reviewed. That call, too, was confirmed after a review of 48 seconds.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, Matsuda hit a slow roller to the right of Hosmer at first base and Hosmer shoveled the ball to Jones, but first-base umpire Eric Cooper ruled Matsuda safe. Leyland had the play reviewed and replay showed Jones' foot beat Matsuda to the bag, so the call was overturned after a review of 56 seconds.
United States: Team USA will start Stroman against Lugo and Puerto Rico for the World Baseball Classic title at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night, with first pitch set for 9 p.m. ET.
The World Baseball Classic runs through Wednesday. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.