A WBC game for the books
Munetaka Murakami is mobbed by teammates after delivering the winning hit
Holy moly but that was a thrilling end to the WBC semifinal game between Mexico and Japan this evening, 180 degrees from the other semifinal (wherein the US trounced Cuba by 12 runs in a dull dramaless pounding). I know most of y'all don't care about such things and fewer still watched along with me, but I was into it and this is my blog, so I'm gonna tell you about it anyway.
Boosting Japan all the way, I was, naturally, feeling a bit frustrated at how things were going. Starting pitcher Rōki Sasaki, he of the 102mph fastball, devastating forkball, 2022 perfect game, and heartbreaking personal story—he's from the Tohoku region near Fukushima and lost everything including his father and grandparents in the 2011 tsunami—had been burned by a successful two-out hit against an infield shift that should not have been employed (I know Team Japan's manager, Hideki Kuriyama of the Hokkaido Fighters, is one of those sabermetric types, but when your pitcher is throwing 100+, do you really think batters are going to pull every batted ball?) and a popup that fell in behind the third baseman before his one hiccup of the game—a hanging forkball that got crushed for a homer. 3-0 Mexico. Meanwhile, Mexico's pitching was unexpectedly sharp when it needed to be and Japan's star third baseman, triple-crown winner Munetaka Murakami, continued his tournament-long slump by failing to cash in with runners aboard (three more Ks with runners on tonight).
By the 7th inning it was looking pretty bleak and I was resigning myself to the idea that at least I wouldn't have to worry about the championship game tomorrow being spoiled for me (I will be umpiring while it's being played and planned on watching it after the fact, and softball players have a tendency to look at their phones in the dugout and gab about scores they look up, heedless of my DVR no-spoiler lockdown).
But then came the bottom of the 7th. After a frustrating strikeout by catcher Takuya Kai and a lineout by Lars Nootbaar (yes, he's on Team Japan with that name, his mom's Japanese and his dad's Dutch-American), Kensuke Kondoh delivered a base hit to generate a little hope. Mexico went to the bullpen for a lefty to face Shohei Ohtani, but Ohtani took five pitches and walked. That brought up former Osaka Buffallo and new Boston Red Sox OF Masataka Yoshida, who leads the entire tournament in RBI. Hope welled some more. Yoshida ran the count to 1-2, but I'd seen enough of his at-bats by now to know he's a bit like Edgar Martínez in that two strikes doesn't faze him. He got a changeup falling into the lefty low-inside happy zone and golfed it over the wall a couple of feet inside the foul pole to tie the game. SUGOI!!
But then Mexico retook the lead immediately in the 8th as Japan's pitcher, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, was missing with everything. Yamamoto had been brilliant in his start against Australia and for two innings tonight, but here in the 8th he couldn't seem to locate any pitch. He got Austin Barnes to strikeout on fastballs out of the zone, but Randy Arozarena creamed a hanging forkball for a double and on the next pitch Alex Verdugo bashed a fastball down the pike for another double. It was time to pull Yamamoto, but no relief was ready yet, so Joey Meneses got to whack another hanger and now runners were on the corners. Too late, Yamamoto is relieved by the young setup man for the Hanshin Tigers, Atsuki Yuasa, and order seems restored when Rowdy Tellez strikes out; but Isaac Paredes still has something to say about it and grounds one through the hole into left field. That plated one run, but Japan escaped further damage when Yoshida threw a missile in from LF to cut down Meneses on a play at the plate and end the inning. Whew, and yikes.
Down two runs, Japan puts their first two batters on in the bottom of the 8th via a hit batter and base hit. Unfortunately, the bottom of the order is now up, but in true NPB fashion, shortstop Sosuke Genda, broken finger and all, squares to bunt and lays one down to advance the runners to 2nd and 3rd. Hokata Yamakawa is summoned from the bench to bat for Kai and hits one hard to left, but it's caught by Arozarena so all Japan gets out of it is one run on the sacrifice fly. Nootbaar follows with a walk, but reliever Gerardo Reyes gets Kondoh on strikes and things go to the 9th with Mexico still ahead.
In the top half, new pitcher Taisei Ota makes short work of Mexico so when Japan comes up in the last of the 9th it's still a one-run deficit. Mexico goes to its closer, Giovanny Gallegos, a solid Major Leaguer with St. Louis during the regular year. Ohtani leads off and doubles on Gallegos' first pitch to get the crowd and his dugout (and me on my couch) excited. Yoshida gets nothing good to hit and walks, which may have been a pitch-around situation—Yoshida has been Mr. Clutch all tournament and the next guy is Murakami, mired in a slump. So now 1st and 2nd, nobody out. Yoshida's no slowpoke, but still Japan goes to the bench for a pinch-runner, the very fleet-of-foot Ukyo Shuto, in case there's a need for speed. Nevertheless, this is a good double-play opportunity for Mexico and Murakami's slump might be exploited here. And he does foul off a pretty juicy fastball to go 0-1, then lays off a breaking pitch that gets buried at the plate. But this is still the guy who just won back-to-back Central League MVP awards, slump or no slump, and the next delivery is a fastball much like the first one and this time Murakami doesn't miss: he squares it up and drives it all the way to the center field wall, scoring Ohtani easily while Shuto kicks it into warp drive and slides home well ahead of the throw in from center. Game over. Japan wins. Much jumping around and screaming. The players seemed jazzed by it, too.
Really, one of the best finishes to a game I've ever seen; it sparked memories of the 1995 ALDS, even though the stakes in a short tournament aren't nearly the same. Mexico manager Benji Gil may have the quote of the night, summing things up thusly: "Japan moves on, but the world of baseball won today."
So, tomorrow we get the WBC finale we deserve, the two most established and historic baseball nations going at it, USA vs. Japan. Should be fun.
Now, if only I can get the softball players to keep their yaps shut so I can watch late tomorrow night unspoiled by "future" knowledge.
Takumu Nakano laces a triple against Korea in the WBC last Thursday
I've been enjoying the 2023 World Baseball Classic this past week. Because of the pandemic, this is the first edition of the WBC in six years. (Usually it's played every three years except when it coincides with a Summer Olympics year, when it gets bumped ahead one year...which, as I think about it, really means it'll go to every four years because it'll get stuck always hitting an Olympic year. Hm. Methinks an adjustment is needed.) The tournament came into existence in 2006 as a way to grow the game in countries around the world that haven't traditionally been hotbeds of baseball and I've always found it to be great fun. This year the Asian opening bracket kicked off last week and the Western one started yesterday. (The difference to allow qualifiers from the Asian rounds a few days to acclimate to the severe time zone change when the advancing teams move on to the semis and the finals in Miami.)
My primary WBC enjoyment comes from getting to see the Japanese National team play. Made up of stars from Nippon Professional Baseball, aka the Japanese Major Leagues (plus a few Japanese players that make their living on this side of the Pacific), Team Japan is an international powerhouse that plays my brand of baseball. Heavy on the fundamentals, prioritize speed and defense, a real all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality over the swing-for-the-longball-at-all-times approach that has become pervasive in the Majors over the last 10-20 years.
In prior WBCs there were particular NPB players I wanted to see play. I paid more attention to the ongoing seasons in NPB back then and knew of the star players then playing—your Ryosuke Kikuchis, your Kenta Maedas, your Shunsuke Watanabes, your Seiichi Uchikawas. This year there is only one NPB player on the roster that I was familiar with, infielder Tetsuto Yamada of the Tokyo Swallows. All the other guys I looked forward to seeing are now retired, playing over here now, or have aged out of star status and hanging on with lesser performances for their teams.
That's OK, though, now I have new NPB guys to pay attention to. I missed the first game of the tournament because of a TV rights situation I hadn't been paying attention to—Fox Sports got themselves exclusive TV rights to the tournament and thus I couldn't watch on MLB.TV—but once the situation was sussed out I ponied up for a month's worth of the Sling Blue streaming service, which carries two of the three Fox sports channels. (The third one carried some of the games being played in Taiwan, so I didn't see any of those.) So I DVR'd the 3:00a.m. games from the Tokyo Dome and got to see three games won by the Japanese.
No one caught my fancy as much as Ryosuke Kikuchi and Norichika Aoki and Michihiro Ogasawara had in prior WBCs, but there are some impressive participants. Tokyo Swallows third baseman Munetaka Murakami won the triple crown in the NPB Central League last year, which I had been unaware of. He seems to be slumping in the tournament, but he's got plenty of help. Left fielder Masataka Yoshida will be playing for Boston this upcoming season, but had been a monster hitter for the Osaka Buffaloes through last year and looked really damn good. Over seven years the guy has a career on-base mark of .419 and all he did was drive in eight in the first two games I saw. Shortstop Takumu Nakano looks a little raw—he's only been in NPB for two years—but I love his approach, with slap hits and blazing speed. For the first time, one of Team Japan's big contributors is an American—St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar qualified to play for Japan because his mother was born there, which makes for a strange juxtaposition of an Asian face with a Nordic name (strange for that culture, anyway). I think he's only playing because Seiya Suzuki of the Chicago Cubs bowed out due to injury, but he's won over the Tokyo Dome faithful.
Japan unsurprisingly ran the table in the first round of the tourney, beating Australia today to advance to the quarterfinals. They'll play Italy on the 16th for the honor of advancing to the next round in Miami. Italy is a surprise entry for the quarterfinals, advancing out of the Taipei group along with Cuba, which is far less surprising. The Taiwanese and the Dutch were favored over Italy there; the Italian baseball program is comparatively minuscule, but they pulled it off.
Of course, the roster rules are pretty lenient. In order to get the WBC off the ground and fill teams with decent players, someone was qualified to play for a country's team if he was a) a citizen of the country, b) eligible to be a citizen of the country, c) had at least one parent from the country, or d) maintained a permanent residence in the country. Which means if you're Jewish you can play for Israel no matter where you're from, so their team is actually not bad, and Italy's team is therefore almost entirely Americans with an Italian parent. I think the idea is that as national programs grow and evolve these allowances will tighten up, but for now the alleged European teams are kind of silly.
Except the Czechs—there's one former big-leaguer on the Czech team (Eric Sogard), the rest are amateur or semi-pro players that have regular jobs in Prague or wherever. One teaches high school, there's a fireman or two, one is even a neurosurgeon. They're not good compared to the pros, but they are having a blast and they actually won a game, beating the lowly Chinese to earn a bye into the ’26 WBC.
The Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Latin Americans, and to a lesser extent the Australians don't have a problem filling a legit roster—there's stiff competition for those squads from actual nationals that play in actual competitive professional leagues in those places as well as in MLB. (In fact, there are so many Puerto Rican players that they get their own team even though PR is part of the United States.) And the Chinese don't have a lot of non-citizen options to pull from, so they're always pretty lousy. In five iterations of the WBC, Italy is the first European team to advance past round one (I'm not counting the Netherlands as they have a lot of players from Aruba), so it hasn't been an issue yet, but I can't imagine it feeling "right" if a team full of Americans win a title representing, say, Italy or Germany.
Another interesting thing this year is that the WBC isn't using Commissioner Manfred's new Major League rules, so there's no distracting pitch clock, the bases are standard, and defenses can still play wherever they like. Just out of curiosity I timed the pitches during an inning of the Japan/Czech Republic game and not once did anyone exceed the new pitch clock limitations, which reinforced my existing bias that the whole thing is just more Manfred nonsense. But then I watched Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, and that game would have had a few violations. I still think it's mostly nonsense, but I think more than anything it shows that the Asian leagues play in cultures that are a lot more disciplined and largely less homer-happy and, for me anyway, that makes for way more interesting baseball. Only one time was there an infield shift used in the three Japan games, implemented by the Australian team, whereas I'm seeing them more frequently among the Latino teams (Venezuela got burned using it just now as I type this) for the same reason: In NPB and KBO (the Korean Baseball Organization) every player is expected to know how to bunt and play a contact-hitting style even if his strength is hitting for power and they will try to beat the shift with a slap hit. Latin America and the US not so much.
Italy wasn't the only upset this year thus far. Australia also advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time, beating a frankly far better Korean team. Seeing them get creamed by Japan, I'm not sure how the Aussies managed it, but if they want to go to Miami they'll have to get past the Cubans on Wednesday.
All this makes me wish once again that there was a reliable way to watch regular season NPB games from this side of the Pacific. Hokkaido has some great looking players, the Swallows are really good, and—for now, anyway—the NPB Central league still plays real baseball with no DH, the way God intended. Also, I'd like to get a better look at a couple of the ballparks. Hiroshima has a newer modern facility that replaced the old dilapidated one they were using when I was there, and the Hokkaido Fighters open a new snazzy one just outside Sopporo this season.
For now I'll enjoy Team Japan in the WBC. Beat "Italy" and proceed to Miami! Ikimashōō!No Comments yet
My dad remarked that my latest batch of Facebook and Twitter postings were incomprehensible without context, and I expect that's so. The context? The World Baseball Classic.
The WBC has only been around since 2006. It's an international tournament kind of like the World Cup, except soccer nerds have had the World Cup a lot longer than us baseball nerds have had the WBC, so it's a way bigger deal—also, the rest of the world loves their soccer, but most countries don't know much about baseball. The idea behind the WBC is to change all that and grow interest in baseball gobally.
And it's working. Slowly, of course, but getting there. Baseball has been huge in some places forever, of course; Japan, Latin America, the Caribbean, Taiwan to a lesser extent. But now there are respectable leagues popping up elsewhere too. The Korean Baseball Organization doesn't have the history, of course, but is now at about the level of quality that the Japanese pro leagues were at 20 or 30 years ago. The Australian league is fledgling, but has produced a Major Leaguer here and there. And the Netherlands are now an international power; great players have come from Aruba and Curacau for a while, but now they're coming out of Amsterdam too.
I, of course, am a Japanophile, and the primary reason I love the WBC is that it's really my only chance to see players from the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) leagues do their thing.
I've paid some attention to NPB for a long time, but it's hard to follow from afar. When I went to Japan in 2003(? or was it '02?), one of my first stops was the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at the Tokyo Dome. It's a lot less impressive than the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, of course, but it's still pretty keen and I got to learn more of the history of the NPB leagues and players. I chose a team to adopt as My Team in Japan (I went with the Hanshin Tigers for several reasons) and went to a preseason game in Osaka. From then on I've tried to follow the leagues on the Internet, but it takes a lot of effort; my command of Japanese is rudimentary at best, and even less useful when trying to read it. I can decipher a box score well enough ("Timely Hit!") and identify most of the player names with the help of a Kanji dictionary, but I can't read a game story or the Nikkan Sports page except on the abbreviated English language site. And forget watching televised games, at least so far. Internet feeds of NPB action exist here and there, but are inaccessible overseas (e.g. here). Highlights make it to YouTube once in a while.
So when the WBC rolls around, I stay up through the night to watch Team Japan. Tokyo always hosts at least one round of the tournament (this year they had two), and Team Japan gets prime time there, so their games are at 2:00am here (3:00am after DST kicks in, as Japan ignores such foolishness). So I've Tweeted reactions to the six games I've watched in the wee hours from the Tokyo Dome the last couple of weeks since nobody was staying up all night with me to watch. :)
This year's team has a lot of new-to-me faces. Some of the old guard have retired or joined the American Major Leagues and opted not to play/were left off the team this year. But that's cool, as I'm getting to know the latest batch of stars. My new favorite NPB player is Hiroshima Carp second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi. He's made numerous outstanding defensive plays in the tournament and I've looked up some of his Carp highlights. My kind of ballplayer.
The guy on Team Japan Major League scouts seem to have their eye on is Tetsudo Yamada, who had a huge second round; he's achieved what the Japanese call the Triple-Threes—.300 batting average, 30 home runs, and 30 stolen bases—two years running now. He's also a second baseman, so he's been the DH in the WBC. Yokohama BayStars outfielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh is popular over there, and it's easy to see why, but he doesn't fit the mold of the Japanese style that I like so much; he's a bulky, slow-by-Japanese-standards home-run hitter. He's like a more disciplined Greg Luzinski, if you will.
Anyway, the Tokyo rounds are over, and Team Japan is so far undefeated as they prepare for the semifinals in Los Angeles starting Monday. So no more 5am tweets about needing to pull Kazuhisa Makida off the mound because he's doing his best José Mesa impression, or making Phil Collins song puns for Tsu-tsu-Tsutsugoh. I do wish I'd been able to come up with a good joke linking Tokyo Giants catcher Seiji Kobayashi to the no-win scenario, though...No Comments yet