The road to the championship game was a gauntlet for Team USA, but the Americans successfully navigated the challenge of taking down two former World Baseball Classic champions to earn their first title game appearance.
The U.S. defeated two-time champion Japan, 2-1, in Tuesday night’s semifinal at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Puerto Rico remained undefeated by edging the Netherlands 4-3 in 11 innings in Tuesday’s first semifinal game and will face Team USA for the title at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday.
Two days after beating the Dominican Republic, the reigning World Baseball Classic champion, 6-3 to earn a spot in the semifinal round, the United States exacted a measure of revenge against Japan by flipping the table: The last time the Americans advanced to the semifinals, it was Japan that knocked them out of the 2009 competition, 9-4, on the way to its second consecutive title.
Played in sporadic rain, this year’s encounter lacked the offense seen eight years ago, but defense proved to be the lynchpin of the contest as the normally reliable Japanese infield opened the door for both Team USA runs.
Andrew McCutchen put Team USA on the scoreboard in the fourth inning with a single to left that scored Christian Yelich. The Miami Marlin had reached on a one-out error by Ryosuke Kikuchi. The five-time gold glove winner was unable to handle what appeared to be a routine grounder, but the ball skipped off the wet grass and popped off the heel of his glove, allowing Yelich to reach second.
The lead held until the bottom of the sixth, when Kikuchi atoned for his fielding mistake by driving a Nate Jones four-seam fastball over the right field fence for a solo homer that knotted the game at 1-1.
Team USA went ahead again in the top of the eighth when Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants smoked a sharp liner to right with one out off Kodai Senga. Ian Kinsler’s double off the left-center wall moved Crawford to third. He then scored what would be the game-winner when Adam Jones grounded out to third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda, a four-time gold glover who also had trouble fielding the wet ball.
Japan mounted a challenge in the bottom of the eighth when Seiichi Uchikawa led off with a single, then moved to second on a Kosuke Tanaka sacrifice bunt. A Kikuchi strikeout followed by a two-out walk to Norichika Aoki brought slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh to the plate, but the Philadelphia Phillies’ Pat Neshek came on in relief of Mark Melancon and coaxed Tsutsugoh to line out to right to end the threat.
With the game on the line in the bottom of the ninth, Team USA manager Jim Leyland turned to Houston Astros reliever Luke Gregerson, who slammed the door on Japan with a seven-pitch performance to earn his first save of the tournament. Sam Dyson of the Texas Rangers worked a scoreless seventh to pick up the win.