Japan walks off into Classic final, and 'the world of baseball won'

March 21st, 2023

MIAMI -- The back-and-forth World Baseball Classic semifinals battle between Japan and Mexico was packed with moments that kept the sellout crowd of 35,933 on the edges of their seats inside loanDepot park, and it had all the makings of an instant classic.

Skyrocketing home runs, jaw-dropping defensive plays, electric pitching performances – that even topped triple-digit velocity – and finally a walk-off double, all with the game’s biggest global star in the lineup to deliver one of the most significant at-bats of the entire 2023 World Baseball Classic.

When the dust settled, Team Japan had defeated Team Mexico, 6-5, on Monday to advance to face the defending champion Team USA for the WBC title on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET on FS1).  

“Obviously, it’s a big accomplishment to get to the championship series, but there’s a huge difference between getting first and second,” said two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, who jump started Japan’s ninth-inning rally with a leadoff double. “I’m going to do all I can to get first place.”

Japan had to work its way back from an early 3-0 deficit after Luis Urías opened the scoring for Mexico in the fourth inning with his first home run of the tournament. The dinger traveled 403 feet into left-center field at 103.3 mph. It was a rare misstep for starter Roki Sasaki, who clocked 101.8 mph in the first at-bat of the game, a strikeout of Randy Arozarena. Sasaki has a career 0.6 home runs per nine innings rate, including 0.5 HR/9 in 20 games last season for the Chiba Lotte Marines of Nippon Professional Baseball.

Japan, whose fewest runs scored in a game so far this tournament was seven, revved up the offense as the innings wound down. Masataka Yoshida responded in the seventh with a game-tying home run off JoJo Romero that flew 366 feet at 102.9 mph to right field. 

“I know my hand was a little shivering,” Yoshida said. “But I know that there was a good connection. … I remember I stepped into the box with a belief in myself.”

Mexico punched right back when Alex Verdugo, Yoshida’s new teammate on the Red Sox, broke the tie in the eighth with a go-ahead RBI line-drive double to plate Arozarena, who also starred with a clutch home run robbery to keep Japan off the board earlier in the game. Isaac Paredes tacked on Mexico’s final run to put Japan in a 5-4 hole heading into the ninth.

But late-game leads do not guarantee wins, especially with one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball coming to the plate. Ohtani led off the inning by sending a first-pitch changeup from Giovanny Gallegos into right-center field. His batting helmet flew off his head as he rounded first base, and he fervently threw his hands up in celebration when he reached second. 

“It’s been a while since I was playing in a win-or-lose game, a playoff atmosphere game,” Ohtani said. “Obviously, we couldn’t lose and I wanted to get the guys rallied up in the dugout.”

Yoshida drew a walk in the next at-bat to put runners on first and second (Ukyo Shuto then pinch-ran for Yoshida) with no outs for Munetaka Murakami, who had been 0-for-4 in the game. From the second Murakami made contact with Gallegos’ 1-1 fastball, the crowd burst into a frenzy, knowing what was about to ensue. The ball soared 400 feet off the left-center field wall, sending Ohtani and Shuto flying home for the game-tying and game-winning runs.

“When I hit the ball, I was hoping it was going to go into the back stands, but I guess I didn't have enough power to hit the ball out of the stadium,” Murakami said. “But I know that Shuto was a really fast runner, so I figured we will win.”

With a victory, Japan stays undefeated in WBC play. The winner of the 2006 and ‘09 tournaments will look to unseat Team USA from its championship reign. Japan ended Mexico’s memorable tournament run in a game that will be remembered for far more than the final score.

"I think that Japan moves on,” said Mexico manager Benji Gil. “But the world of baseball won today."