The big day is final here. Two weeks of thrilling international baseball comes to a conclusion with the United States looking to defend their World Baseball Classic crown against undefeated Japan, who won the first two Classics in 2006 and 2009. Team USA beat them en route to the title in 2017, so Japan will be out for revenge. The game is full of intriguing storylines, so let’s recap how each team got here and what to watch for tonight.
Team USA finished runners-up in their pool behind Mexico and thus played then-undefeated Venezuela in the quarterfinals. A come-from-behind 9-7 victory powered by an eighth-inning Trea Turner grand slam advanced the United States to the semifinals, where they trounced Cuba, 14-2. to book a spot in the championship game tonight. Japan meanwhile won their pool with a 4-0 record and brushed aside Italy, 9-3, to set up a semifinal showdown with Mexico. Randy Arozarena and company looked poised to win for practically the whole contest, but a Masataka Yoshida three-run home run in the seventh and a walk-off two-run double from Munetaka Murakami snatched victory and a finals berth for Samurai Japan.
Of course, all eyes will be on Angels superstar teammates Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, on opposite sides of the diamond for the first time since Ohtani joined the Angels from NPB. To have the two finalist teams led by arguably the two greatest players in the sport right now is exactly the finale this spectacular tournament deserves. Both players have been crushing the baseball all tournament long, and there’s even a chance we could see Ohtani pitch in relief tonight. Trout will bat second for USA while Ohtani will hit third for Japan.
Merrill Kelly takes the mound for Team USA making his second start of the tournament. He pitched three innings against Colombia in the final pool play game, allowing two runs on four hits and two walks as the US narrowly came back to win that game, 3-2. It’s a near-fairytale scenario for the Diamondbacks starter — he played four seasons in KBO after failing to reach the majors in his first stint of professional baseball stateside and now starts the WBC championship game. The 34-year-old righty has a legitimate five-pitch mix, throwing the four-seamer, changeup, cutter, sinker and curveball each over 13 percent of the time. He made 33 starts for Arizona in 2022, going 13-8 with a 3.37 ERA (119 ERA+), 3.65 FIP, and 177 strikeouts in 200.1 innings.
Team Japan surprised many with their choice of starter for this game. Instead of Yu Darvish, Shota Imanaga makes his first start of the WBC. He’s made two relief appearances, allowing a run on three hits with no walks and five strikeouts. The 29 year old southpaw pitches for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars of NPB, for whom he earned an All-Star nod in 2019 and threw a no-hitter last season. Look for him to attack hitters with a high-spin four-seamer in the mid-90, a wipeout slider that generated whiffs on over 80 percent of swings this tournament, and a splitter that works both as a swing-and-miss offering and groundball generator.
Team USA sends out undoubtedly their strongest lineup for the final. Trea Turner unequivocally has been the United States’ star player of late, with four home runs including the aforementioned grand slam and a pair of blasts in the semifinal. J.T. Realmuto owns the second-best OPS in the WBC at 1.511 while every single hitter in the batting order except for Mookie Betts has posted an OPS north of .850 for the tournament. Mets teammates Pete Alonso (.343 OPS) and Jeff McNeil (.384 OPS) rightfully find their places on the bench with three hits between the pair for the entire tournament.
Team Japan sends out the exact same lineup that eked past Mexico via 6-5 walk-off in the semifinals. The Cardinals’ Lars Nootbaar continues to set the table, followed by on-base threat Kensuke Kondoh of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. This affords Ohtani maximal opportunity to bat with runners on while still getting a turn in the first inning. Behind him is the newest member of the Red Sox outfield: Masataka Yoshida, the team leader with 13 RBI. Munetaka Murakami broke the NPB single-season home run record by a domestic player with 56 last season but scuffled in his first handful of appearances this tournament. However, I reckon that his walk-off double more than atoned for all previous play. The bottom-half of the lineup still has plenty of pop including ninth-hitting catcher Yuhei Nakamura, whose 1.458 tournament OPS leads the team.
How to watch
Location: loanDepot Park — Miami, FL
First pitch: 7:00 p.m. EDT
TV broadcast: FS1
Radio broadcast: MLB Network Radio
Online stream: FOXSports.com
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️ U-S-A!@USABaseball's lineup for tonight's WBC championship ⚾️ pic.twitter.com/dGZWReP1Da— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) March 21, 2023
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) March 21, 2023
Japan's starting lineup for tonight's WBC championship‼️ pic.twitter.com/MAf3G2kgP5