Team USA captures first-ever spot in WBC final

For the first time in the brief history of the World Baseball Classic the United States of America will play for the tournament’s ultimate prize.

Capitalizing on a pair of rare blunders from a sure-handed Japanese infield, the USA nudged across just enough to escape with a slim 2-1 victory Tuesday at Dodger Stadium, sealing its spot in Wednesday night’s final game where they will meet an undefeated squad from Puerto Rico.

Prior to Tuesday night’s rain-drenched altercation, the Americans had qualified for a semi-final berth just once, in 2009, but a loss to Japan kept them from a crack at the crown.

Team Japan featured an infield littered with Mitsui Golden Glove Award winners — the Nippon Baseball League’s version of MLB’s Gold Glove Award — including second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi and third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda, with four awards apiece. Both were unable to wrangle grounders, though, leading to American runs.

The errors were set up by a classic pitcher’s duel, pitting Tanner Roark (Washington Nationals) of the U.S. and the Japanese righty Tomoyuki Sugano.

Sugano, who lasted 6 innings, made everything tough for the USA hitters striking out six, including three who were sent back to the dugout after check-swing strike threes. The combination of a delivery lacking rhythm — employing a slight hesitation at the apex of his motion — a nasty slider and the cover of heavy Los Angeles rain proved to be too much for the powder-keg American offense.

And that weird SoCal weather dipped even further into the outcome.

With one down in the fourth, Christian Yelich (Miami Marlins) sent what appeared to be something of a routine ground ball — particularly given Kikuchi’s stellar defensive abilities — to the right side. But retreating to the outfield grass proved to the incorrect choice for the two-sacker, as a skip off the cut of the grass allowed Yelich to reach on an error.

As the ball caromed off the right arm of Kikuchi and into medium-deep center field, the American left fielder scampered on to second.

Three batters later — following a strikeout by Nolan Arenado (Colorado Rockies) and a walk of Eric Hosmer (Kansas City Royals) — Andrew McCutchen (Pittsburgh Pirates) sent a single to left breaking a scoreless tie. The adrenaline-fueling rally came to an abrupt end with Buster Posey (San Francisco Giants) grounding out, stranding two rare base runners, as Sugano continued to baffle the Yanks and dampen the American half of a crowd of about 30,000.

Returning the game to its natural balance, Kikuchi tagged Nate Jones (Chicago White Sox) — who entered the fray in relief of Roark after 4 scoreless innings of two-hit ball — with Japan’s only run. Jumping all over a 1-2 fastball from Jones, the home team’s two-hole hitter sent a fly ball just over the right-field wall.

In a scene eerily similar to Jones’ mesmerizing snag of two nights prior, McCutchen’s outstretched glove came up inches shy of a repeat performance, lending credence to the obvious difficulty of the center fielder’s polarizing play.

The blast further invigorated the painted-faced Japanese half of the crowd, which took very few breaks from banging drums, blowing trumpets and chanting.

As the innings continued to pass, and zeroes continued to be hung by dominant pitching and flawless defense, the WBC’s second semi-final began to appear ticketed for the same fate as the first one day earlier: a test of the extra-innings rules. This was not to be the case.

A one-out single off the bat of Brandon Crawford (Giants) set the table, though he somewhat confusingly was unable to score on a double off the wall in left-center by Ian Kinsler (Detroit Tigers). The base running gaffe once again set the table for Team USA’s WBC hero Jones, who slapped a broken-bat chopper to third.

Like his fellow standout defender Kikuchi, Matsuda was unable to field an otherwise routine grounder cleanly. When he was able to wrangle the wet leather orb, his grip was clearly not sufficient for an overly aggressive throw to the plate to get Crawford, who was going on contact. Accepting discretion as the better part of valor, the veteran chose to take the out at first yielding  the go-ahead run.

With the narrow win, this American squad has clinched the nation’s first ever medal finish.

In a Wednesday night rematch with Puerto Rico, manager Jim Leyland will hand the ball to Marcus Stroman (Toronto Blue Jays) to take on Seth Lugo (New York Mets), and decide who gets the gold. And who the silver.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.