The key to great drama is when you know what’s coming but are still thrilled by it. Thus, we give you Japan and the United States in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic.
These are the two teams we most expected to see here. The two countries boast the top two professional baseball leagues in the world, and each has a roster stocked with stars. The United States lineup is filled with All-Stars. Japan has some of the most exciting pitchers in the sport. They, along with the Dominican Republic, were the favorites in this tournament. Japan won the first two, in 2006 and 2009. The United States is the reigning champion, having claimed the title in 2017.
Yet getting here wasn’t easy. The U.S. didn’t win its pool, losing to fellow semifinalist Mexico. It sweated out a tight quarterfinals win over Venezuela before crushing Cuba in the semis. Japan breezed into the semifinals but needed all nine innings to overcome a resilient Mexico team. Japan’s first lead that game came in the ninth, on the winning run.
Now, each faces its toughest test of the tournament. This is a heavyweight bout, and here’s the tale of the tape.
How to watch: Airing on Tuesday, March 21 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1
Starting pitchers: RHP Merrill Kelly vs. LHP Shota Imanaga
What happened in the semifinal? Trea Turner happened. Again. The Phillies shortstop smacked a go-ahead grand slam Saturday in a quarterfinal win over Venezuela, then sent two more homers sailing Sunday in a semifinal blowout of Cuba. Three homers and nine RBIs in two days.
Really, every bat clicked in USA’s order against an overwhelmed Cuba side. Paul Goldschmidt homered and knocked in four runs. Mookie Betts collected three hits with a double. Nolan Arenado tripled among his two hits. Cedric Mullins, off the bench, hit a homer.
All of that offense gave manager Mark DeRosa a gift that will keep on giving. After burning six bullpen arms in Saturday’s quarterfinals, DeRosa found eight stellar innings from a Cardinals piggyback of Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas in Sunday’s semifinal, needing only one mop-up inning from the Angels’ Aaron Loup. So their bullpen will be fresh, rested and ready to roll Tuesday.
Who’s been the MVP? Much has been made of Turner’s heroics from the No. 9 spot in Team USA’s lineup. But somebody has to hit ninth. And really, Turner is just as much a leadoff hitter or a cleanup bat, equally able to turn over a lineup or clear the bases in front of him. When your order is as stacked as Team USA’s, runs can come from any angle.