Samurai Japan are World Champs

The 2023 World Baseball Classic was more than just a mere success. I believe it has helped revolutionize baseball as a global phenomenon that will only continue to grow. This was the fifth iteration of the tournament, but it will stand out in history as the one that truly realized this tournament as an event that everyone should look forward to every three years. Some of the best baseball I have ever seen occurred as all star teams fought to survive one more game in order to claim the WBC Trophy and be the true champion of the world.

The first round was pool play which saw the 20 different nations divided up into four groups that were played around the world. Cuba and Italy survived the weakest pool, Pool A, as each of the five teams finished 2-2. Cuba and Italy moved on due to the tiebreaker which was runs allowed divided by number of outs recorded, which simply means whichever team allowed the least amount of runs. This was not necessarily a surprising result, but it was rather disappointing for the Kingdom of the Netherlands to miss out on moving on when they have been one of the more successful teams in the tournament’s history. Taiwanese player Yu Chang took home Pool A MVP after boasting seven hits, two home runs, eight RBI, and a 1.438 OPS.

Japan dominated Pool B by going undefeated 4-0 and outscoring their opponents 32 to 8 over the four games. Australia also surprised many as they nabbed the second spot of the pool which most thought would fall to Korea. The Czech Republic went home as one of the fan favorites even though they only went 1-3. Their roster mostly consisted of amateur baseball players, which made for some surreal moments when they had to face the best player on the planet, Shohei Ohtani. One player, Ondrej Satoria was able to strike out Ohtani even though his day job is as an electrician. After leading Japan to the next round, Shohei Ohtani won Pool B MVP after hitting six hits in twelve at bats including three doubles and a homer. He also pitched four scoreless innings while only giving up one hit. It was very fun to see the Japanese crowd support their players as each game packed the Tokyo Dome.

Mexico surprisingly won Pool C after dominating the United States in their matchup. Both teams would move on to the next round as expected, but many saw the United States as the easy winner of the group. Canada and the other nations fought hard, but were not good enough to compete with the talent of the top two teams. Mexico was the story of the group as they dropped their first game to Colombia, but responded with three wins to claim the group. Randy Arozarena claimed the Group C MVP with a .500 batting average, five doubles, and a 1.703 OPS, all while being the spark plug for Mexico. His story is rather unique as he was born in Cuba. In order to reach the big leagues, he defected from Cuba to Mexico where he would jump start his pro career. He has found a home so much so in Mexico that he pleaded with the President to allow him to play for the Mexican national team.

Pool D was easily the most competitive of the group stage with three extremely talented teams in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. Miami was rocking for these matchups and the teams did not disappoint. In a huge upset, Venezuela won the group stage after going undefeated and taking down not only the D.R., but also Puerto Rico in back to back games. The second spot came down to a final game between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico where Puerto Rico was able to pull off the upset and win 5-2. The betting favorite of the event, the Dominican Republic, did not advance past the group stage in what most people saw as one of the greatest constructed teams in baseball history. Venezuelan catcher Salvador Perez won Pool D MVP after leading his team to crucial win after crucial win. Pool play was rather up and down as for every good matchup, it seemed a mercy would also happen.

Unfortunately, there was a downside to the WBC as Mets All Star closer Edwin Diaz injured himself during the celebration of Puerto Rico’s win over the D.R. This prompted many on social media to denounce the WBC while calling it a set of exhibitions that meant nothing. I strongly disagree with such a notion and the only proof that is necessary was seen in the following elimination games.

The eight remaining teams moved on to play the elimination games against their Pool counterparts. For example, the winner of Pool A played the runner up of Pool B. In a close game, Cuba defeated Australia 4-3 behind timely hitting and key pitching performances. Cuba would have a number of days off until they would play the winner of the Pool C runner up and Pool D winner in the semifinal game. The other game including these two groups saw Japan continue their dominance as they trounced Italy 9-3. Italy played valiantly to get this far as they were led by Kansas City’s Nicky Lopez and Angel’s Dominic Fletcher. It should also be noted how they each sported their own mustaches and had an espresso machine in their dugout.

On the other side of the bracket, Mexico locked with Puerto Rico in what was an excellent game. Puerto Rico jumped on Julio Urias to scratch four across in the first innings, but were then held to zero the rest of the game. Mexico battled back until they finally took the lead in the seventh inning after putting up a three spot. For the first time, Mexico had punched their ticket to a WBC semifinal where they would face the all powerful Japan. Venezuela would face the United States after winning Pool C in Miami. This was an excellent back-and-forth game as the United States would take the lead in the first inning 3-0. Venezuela would not go down easy as they eventually took a 7-5 lead going into the eighth inning. Trea Turner came up to the plate with the bases loaded and launched a two strike pitch into the bouncing left field bleachers, turning the game upside down. The United States would not relinquish its 9-7 lead after dominant outings by both Devon Williams and Ryan Pressly. They would face Cuba in the semifinal the following day.

The final four was now set and all the teams had arrived in Miami. The United States would face Cuba and Mexico would play Japan. The first semifinal was not very interesting, as the United States lineup of stars fed off Cuban pitching. The rout ended 14-2 in what was a dominant performance for the United States, who were primed to defend their WBC title in the championship game. The other semifinal game was an all-time classic that was maybe the best baseball game in recent memory. Japan threw 21-year-old phenom Roki Sasaki who could toss an easy 100 mph fastball with a deadly splitter. Several Major League scouts were in attendance for his performance, and he did not disappoint. He would, however, be outpitched by Patrick Sandoval, who threw 4.1 innings of scoreless ball. This pitching duel was scoreless until Luis Urias caught a hanging breaking ball from Sasaki and sent it into left field to take a three run lead. Japan would continue to threaten as they seemed to have multiple runners on base every inning, but were just missing that big hit. Kazuma Okamoto believed he delivered when he smacked a ball into left, but at the last moment Randy Arozarena leapt up to bring the homer back in an electric moment. It seemed the ball always found him and he always delivered. Right when necessary, Masataka Yoshida launched a ball off the foul pole to tie the game at three. Mexico would quickly respond as an RBI double from Alex Verdugo gave them the lead. A following single by Isaac Parades would push one more across, but a great throw by Yoshida would hold the score to 5-3. Japan would push one more across and hold Mexico to set up the score 5-4 in the ninth. Ohtani would double to lead off the inning and Yoshida would walk to put runners at first and second. Munetaka Murakami, a great home run hitter in Japan, would launch a ball into the gap to walk off the game 6-5. Pinch runner Ukyo Shuto raced around the bases to score from first to home in only 10.3 seconds. A huge win for Japan and a devastating loss for Mexico made for a moment few will forget.

The WBC Final matchup was set with the United States facing off against Japan in a heavyweight matchup for the ages. The first notable hit was by none other than Trea Turner, who sent his fifth homer of the WBC into the seats in the second. This lead would not last long, as Munetaka Murakami would respond with his own solo shot in the bottom of the second. Japan would manufacture another run and Kazuma Okamoto would redeem himself by actually hitting a homerun this game. The Japanese bullpen would hold the score at 3-1 until Kyle Schwarber hit a mammoth shot into the second deck to make it 3-2. In the bottom of the ninth, Shohei Ohtani would come out of the bullpen to finish off the game. After hitting the entire game, he would now take the mound in hopes of winning Japan’s third WBC.

Mookie Betts grounded into a double play after a Jeff Mcneil walk to make it two outs in the bottom of the ninth. A set up for only a matchup that could be seen in dreams. Shohei Ohtani on the mound and Mike Trout at the plate. Two players that are not only on the same team, but are also two of the greatest players this generation has ever seen. Shohei Ohtani can both pitch and hit at a high level while Mike Trout has been the best hitter on the planet for nearly a decade. The first pitch, Ohtani threw a slider that was just low to make the count 1-0. He then threw a 100 mph fastball just by Trout’s bat to then just miss the outside part of the plate with another 100 mph fastball. If Ohtani lacked any confidence, he didn’t show it as he rifled another 100 mph fastball right by Trout. He missed with another fastball that touched 102 mph to set up the count at three balls and two strikes with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and a championship on the line. Ohtani’s pitch was a disgusting 87 mph slider that broke 17 inches across the plate. Mike Trout swung and missed to give Shohei the strikeout and Japan a World Baseball Classic Championship.

This WBC had several memorable moments that will be remembered by many all around the world. Baseball is not just a sport for Americans, it is a sport for everybody around the world. This World Baseball Classic had everything one could ask for, including that dream matchup just at the end. The baseball Gods truly gave us an event that will not be forgotten and I am sure all the players are itching to claim glory in the 2026 World Baseball Classic that can’t get here soon enough.