LOS ANGELES -- No matter your rooting interest, World Baseball Classic games this year have not been for the faint of heart. And so it was again at Dodger Stadium in a persistent drizzle and mist on Tuesday night.Team USA survived this one in another game that came down to
LOS ANGELES -- No matter your rooting interest, World Baseball Classic games this year have not been for the faint of heart. And so it was again at Dodger Stadium in a persistent drizzle and mist on Tuesday night.
Team USA survived this one in another game that came down to the final pitch, defeating previously undefeated Japan, 2-1, on a pair of misplayed grounders that led to both American runs.
:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::
The Americans are in the title game for the first time in four Classics against 7-0 Puerto Rico tonight in a 9 ET start that will be broadcast live on MLB Network and MLB.TV.
It'll be Marcus Stroman on the mound for the U.S. against Seth Lugo for Puerto Rico. And USA manager Jim Leyland promised only one change in the lineup: flipping Jonathan Lucroy in place of Buster Posey behind the plate as he has done every game throughout the tournament.
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Do you believe in miracles? Those were the words of Al Michaels in 1980, when a group of amateur American hockey players stunned the Soviet Union in the penultimate game of the medal round and went on to win the Olympic gold medal.
The fact that the U.S. must wade through a pair of teams in the Championship Round with a combined record of 13-0 (Japan and Puerto Rico) this month is no small feat or miracle.
"It means a heck of a lot to be going to the championship game. It's been really good, been a lot of fun," U.S. and Pirates right fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "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. 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."
McCutchen's RBI single in the fourth inning came after Japan second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi booted a Christian Yelich grounder for a two-base error and put the U.S. on the board.
Kikuchi tied it with a homer in the sixth against U.S. reliever Nate Jones.
Finally in the eighth, Brandon Crawford singled and when Ian Kinsler doubled into the gap in left-center, the Giants shortstop had to carefully navigate the wet infield as he sprinted around the bases only to be held at third.
Adam Jones squibbed a grounder that third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda briefly juggled. By the time Matsuda recovered, the only play was at first as Crawford scored the winning run.
It was very unlike the Japanese, who fielded a vastly unheralded team of very good Nippon Professional Baseball players in this tournament sans previous stars like Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish and Ichiro Suzuki, who led the team to championships in the first two Classics.
Still, the team prides itself on execution and playing mistake-free baseball. And on Tuesday night, that obviously was not the case. Japan's now outgoing manager, Hiroki Kokubo, said his hitters were also baffled by an array of cutters and fastballs thrown by seven U.S. pitchers.
Kokubo took over the Japanese after the team was ousted by Puerto Rico in the semifinals of the 2013 Classic, and he indicated that his contract had now expired and his job is done.
"Yes, we made mistakes. Two plays. But they were honest mistakes, and I'm not going to get on my players," Kokubo said. "The U.S. pitching is one rank higher than the teams we faced in the first two rounds of the tournament. We have talented players, but we couldn't hit the ball up the middle against them. We weren't equipped to deal with their breaking pitches."
Homage must be paid here to Leyland for the way he has masterfully made his way through the labyrinth of conditions and problems he's had to deal with massaging the U.S. pitching en route to standing one victory away from winning the tournament.
"I know we do have restrictions, and it's not restricted only to the pitch limit," Leyland said before the game. "There is much more involved than that. Some managers and organizations don't want their pitchers to go back to back just yet. If they would, it would be on a strict pitch limit. So it is a little tricky. There is no question about it."
Leyland has already sent a pair of starting pitchers (Drew Smyly and Chris Archer) home because their throw dates -- dictated by the Mariners and Rays, respectively -- didn't match Team USA's schedule in the Classic.
On Tuesday night, starter Tanner Roark was restricted to 50 pitches by the Nationals even though starters are able to go as far as 95 in the Championship Round. Japanese starter Tomoyuki Sugano went six innings and tossed 81. Roark worked four scoreless innings and threw only 48.
Roark explained that he hadn't thrown in nine days, and that was the reason for the restriction.
"Well, my arm felt great, nice and loose," he said. "I felt good enough to stay out there."
But Roark couldn't, and that led to a parade of six relievers to keep the Japanese at bay. Including the Kikuchi homer, Japan had only four baserunners in the final five innings.
About the availability of his relievers in the finale, Leyland said he'd already received some texts from pitching coaches since the end of the game, but "I think we're in good shape."
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About Stroman, who made one start in each of the previous two rounds, Leyland said the right-hander could throw as many as 95 pitches. No restrictions.
"Oh, he's available to do it, but like any other game, the hitters will dictate that," he said.
Of course, it's hardly any other game for the Americans. And here they are. In uncharted waters. It's the U.S. vs. the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico for true baseball dominance in the world.
Do you believe in miracles? Sometimes they do happen.
The World Baseball Classic final is tonight. 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.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter.