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2023 World Baseball Classic Day 12: Champs pushed to the brink

Venezuela had the defending champions on the ropes, but a late Trea Turner grand slam gave the USA a dramatic late victory.

Syndication: Arizona Republic Patrick Breen/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Final Four is set! It took nearly four hours, but the United States quest for a repeat remained alive on Saturday night, as they’ll join Cuba, Japan, and Mexico in the WBC semi-finals after a thrilling back-and-forth win over a talented Venezuela squad that just couldn’t quite get across the finish line.

Venezuela entered the night as a slight underdog despite having gone 4-0 in pool play with a plus-16 run differential and sending their ace, Martín Pérez to the bump. This game packed a massive punch from the very first moment: the USA opened the game with five consecutive hits against Pérez, driving him from the game after the fifth, which also resulted in their first out at second base. There was a lot of soft contact involved — only Mookie Betts’ game-opening single cracked a 100 mph exit velocity, and two of the hits were sub-80 mph grounders that just managed to squeak by — but the damage was done. Three runs had scored to that point, but White Sox reliever José Ruiz put out the fire with a strikeout and a flyout.

For a moment, it looked like we might have another early rout on our hands. ‘Twas not to be, though. Ruiz’s teammate Lance Lynn came out struggling to locate virtually all of his pitches, and he got squared up accordingly. José Altuve came out swinging with a hard line drive single on pitch number one, and six pitches later, Luis Arraez took a hanging cutter and made it a ballgame.

Lynn made it out of the inning unscathed, though not without some more stress — the hardest-hit ball of the whole inning was a 111 mph screamer off the bat of Ronald Acuña Jr. that found Mike Trout’s glove to end the frame. He settled down to get through the second and third innings unscathed, but he never quite found his command, getting bailed out in the second inning when Eugenio Suárez smoked a double into the right field corner only to be called out on a foot-briefly-came-off-the-bag-in-slow-motion replay review. Ruiz also ran into trouble in the second inning, allowing a leadoff double to J.T. Realmuto and walking Trea Turner, but manager Omar López stuck with him, and he responded with a positively electrifying strikeout of Mike Trout to end the inning.

Venezuelan pitching danced around trouble all night and especially early on, and the USA struck again in the fourth inning, when two hits and a sacrifice fly against Luis García of Houston, who relieved Ruiz in the third, pushed the score to 4-2. In the fifth inning, García made the mistake of throwing a cutter that he couldn’t place far enough inside to prevent Kyle Tucker from spinning on it and uncorking a solo shot down the line.

Lynn allowed baserunners in three of his four innings but allowed only that first pair of runs, ceding the mound to Daniel Bard with 58 pitches on his line. Bard, unfortunately, simply could not pull together his sometimes-spotty control, putting the first two hitters he saw on and in scoring position just in time for the top of the Venezuelan lineup. A hit-by-pitch, wild pitch, and walk later, Bard’s night was done, and the go-ahead run was on base for Jason Adam. Adam induced a groundout to keep the lead in Team USA’s hands, but it soon devolved even further for the defending champs, as the Tampa Bay right-hander gifted Salvador Pérez a middle-middle changeup that the veteran did not miss. Another long flyout from Acuña gave the South Americans their first lead of the night at the halfway point.

García then picked an opportune time for Venezuela’s very first 1-2-3 inning of the night, and Adam Ottavino managed to stop the bleeding from the USA bullpen. Suddenly, the defending champs were down to their final nine outs, and Venezuela was just a bullpen away from their second semi-final appearance, and first since 2009, when the tournament looked vastly different. Paul Goldschmidt got to 90 feet away from making it a tie game in the seventh inning, but José Quijada picked up a huge punchout of Kyle Tucker to end the threat.

Luis Arraez made it a two-run game with his second blast of the night, but the USA weren’t going away quietly, loading the bases in their half of the eighth before Trea Turner unloaded them with one swing of the bat:

That’s as difficult of a momentum swing to recover from as you can imagine, and that was all she wrote for a talented Venezuelan squad, who failed to rally around a leadoff double to Acuña in the eighth inning and ultimately went down in order against Devin Williams and, in the ninth, Ryan Pressly.

The USians won’t have much rest: They’re slated for a semi-final bout with Cuba in roughly 20 hours from now tomorrow evening, with the winner of that contest taking on the winner of Mexico and Japan’s David/Goliath re-enactment for all the marbles this Tuesday. DeRosa has yet to announce a starter for tomorrow’s knockout match, but options include Adam Wainwright, Merrill Kelly, Brady Singer, and Miles Mikolas, none of whom have looked terribly inspired in this tournament.

Today at the WBC:

Japan vs. Mexico

Time: 7:00 p.m. EST


Venue: loanDepot Park, Miami, Florida, USA