USA-PR a final worthy of emotional WBC '17

March 22nd, 2017

What else did you expect? Baseball is so great when it's played with pride, played with joy, played with something on the line.

Two of the past three World Series have come down to Game 7 classics, and now the 2017 World Baseball Classic is serving up the most anticipated game ever in March.

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

Tonight at 9 ET on MLB.TV and MLB Network, it's Jim Leyland's Team USA vs. the unbeaten blondes from Puerto Rico, featuring the same starting pitchers as the previous U.S.-Puerto Rico game -- the Blue Jays' against the Mets' -- after World Baseball Classic semifinals that left us wondering what could possibly be next.

A walk-off grand slam? A game-ending triple play? Maybe a straight steal of home by ?

It was probably impossible to top the drama of Puerto Rico's 11-inning 4-3 victory over and the Netherlands on Monday, but the U.S. and Japan kept the competition as tense as it could be while playing through the light rain at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday.

When it ended with Luke Gregerson throwing a perfect ninth inning to secure the United States' 2-1 win.

"We knew we had to bring our 'A' game," said. "They brought theirs. It definitely was a challenge. It was a really good ballgame. It was an all-around great game, great team. It was very fun."

Team USA is in the championship game of the Classic for the first time. And it's all led us to a conclusion that should put an exclamation point on the greatest celebration of international baseball ever played.

In the fourth rendition of the event that started in 2006, everything has clicked.

We knew something was different back on March 10 at Marlins Park, when dove headfirst into first base after strike three got away from a Colombian catcher, his urgency helping the stunned Americans position themselves for a 10-inning victory. ' robbery of Orioles teammate Manny Machado in Team USA's elimination-game victory over the Dominican Republic pounded home the point.

Now we're here.

To capture the title, the Americans must beat Puerto Rico, which is trying to roll through WBC '17 without a loss. The Dominican Republic did that in 2013, beating Puerto Rico in the final, but now it's Roberto Clemente's homeland that is trying to claim bragging rights.

With veterans and setting the tone for a wave of young talent built around the infield of , and fielding wizard/contortionist , Puerto Rico has played the game with swagger and passion, unashamedly expressing joy thought nine innings, and sometimes more.

Puerto Rico has gone 7-0, sweeping pool play in Jalisco, Mexico, and San Diego. It beat Team USA, 6-5, at Petco Park last Friday, with a ninth-inning rally by the Americans falling just short.

McCutchen can't wait for the rematch.

"Very excited," McCutchen said on MLB Network. "They're a team that's going to come out and be loud and crazy, dancing and jumping. We're looking forward to to that, looking forward to coming out and doing our job and hopefully getting a victory."

Puerto Rico has outscored its opposition, 55-18, in its unbeaten run, and that has had a lot to do with a seemingly endless run of great defense.

Molina is largely responsible for getting Puerto Rico into the championship game. He took advantage of two Netherlands baserunning mistakes in the first inning Monday, limiting what would have otherwise been a very ugly inning for starter .

Correa, the Astros' shortstop, has been playing third base like Brooks Robinson. Baez continues to invent new ways to get outs in the field and avoid outs running the bases. The relay against the Dutch from to Baez to Molina was executed as well as it could be, cutting down at the plate.

Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said his team is more talented than the one that lost, 3-0, in the 2013 final, after beating and Japan in the semis.

"We have a bank of talent that is wider than in 2013," Rodriguez said. "There are more options. Not only the ones in the lineup, but also we have more options in our reserve players, and that is a huge difference."

Team USA is 5-2, with its only easy victory coming against Canada. Its other four wins were by a combined seven runs, so it's fitting that players have been wearing T-shirts reading "United we grind" since gathering in Florida for the first round a little more than two weeks ago.

Leyland hasn't smiled a lot along the way, but he let his guard down for a moment on camera after Gregerson got the final out against Japan. He survived an 11-inning Game 7 to guide the Marlins to a World Series championship over the Indians 20 years ago.

You can count on Leyland to be in the same mode when the anthems are playing tonight. The party is going to be on the Puerto Rican side, at least until the game is over. The celebration afterward is sure to be wild, whichever team wins. It's been a thrilling ride.

The World Baseball Classic concludes tonight. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via, 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 at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at