MIAMI -- Truly understanding what the World Baseball Classic means took a little while for Team USA, which at its first workout March 7 realized it was far less a team than a collection of players who hoped to become one. The players looked around at one another, marveled at the talent and realized they'd be sharing locker rooms and meals -- and perhaps an airplane ride to the knockout round -- and they recognized the only thing that could coalesce them was time. Only winning would grant them that luxury.
Halfway across the globe, Samurai Japan, the top-ranked national team in the world, was on its 19th day together. The Japanese WBC team, comprising the biggest stars in Nippon Professional Baseball and top major leaguers, had played four exhibition games over the previous two weeks, which followed four more it had played in November, which came after it had won gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021. This was a real team, battle-tested, forged in competition, beloved by a country where half the televisions would tune in to see it try to win Japan's first WBC title since 2009.
The WBC final, which LoanDepot Park will host at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday, brings together a pair of squads with decidedly different backgrounds. It's the perfect foundation for two countries with contrasting styles and philosophical approaches to the game. The United States is here on the strength of its ability, which overwhelmed lesser opponents even with the reality that baseball is the sport ripest for Davids toppling Goliaths. Japan, though filled with world-class players, spent years preparing for this, determined to right the wrongs of losses in the past two WBC semifinals and return to championship glory.
"We came here to the U.S., and we are trying to beat the U.S.," Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said upon arriving in Miami, before either team had won its semifinal game. "Not just myself. I think I'm representing all my players from the past and the coaches. So I think we're all in the mind of coming to the U.S. and we will beat the U.S."
For all of the phenomenal individual matchups the final might offer -- none as tantalizing as the possibility of Shohei Ohtani preparing to close out a victory for Japan with his Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout standing in the batter's box facing him -- the truest representation of the WBC is how so many of its participants share Samurai Japan's win-win-win ethos after experiencing the tournament. They care. They care deeply.
Now, too, Team USA finally feels like a team. In the time since March 7, the U.S. has won, then lost, then won and won and won and won. And winning in the sort of environment these games foment -- loud and passionate, a baseball audience more resembling the playoffs in October than the exhibition the WBC, at its essence, actually is -- has brought them together, and back to a simpler time.
This, American players have said this week, feels like the baseball of their teenage years, when they would gather with other elite players from around the country for select tournaments and try to fuse into something more in short order. It's not easy. As much as baseball is a series of individual matchups -- every pitch entails a hitter trying to beat a pitcher -- the soul of the game is in the flow of what happens when bat meets ball. How they move together and communicate less with words than glances. A baseball team is truly a team when the players know one another's tendencies well enough to forgo even a look and simply feel where someone will be on the field.
Surviving a pool-play scare after a loss to Mexico bought Team USA the time it desired and needed. And after the flight from Phoenix to Miami, manager Mark DeRosa noticed a change in the group -- a comfort with one another, with coaching luminaries including Ken Griffey Jr. and Andy Pettitte and Brian McCann and Michael Young, with the idea that this bracket that didn't end with one team being fitted for World Series rings could still deliver games that meant everything. Because it feels like they do.
"It's really been such a pleasure to be around them, and it takes a minute for them to relax and not want to impress each other," DeRosa said. "That's the biggest thing. Like, the cage sessions have gotten way more relaxed and way more fun and jovial, and the guys are messing around with Griff and Mac and Mike Young."
There's a deep appeal to this, in the challenge and the charm of it, and the MLB stars who populated rosters across the tournament, winners and losers, have marveled at the WBC's ability to make them as invested in the results of these games as they are in the ones in October. One night after they dusted Cuba in their own semifinal, the members of Team USA watched Japan's spectacular come-from-behind victory against Mexico on Monday night, coming together like a bunch of friends for a watch party.
The U.S. is peaking at the right time. After the blowout against Cuba, the entire bullpen, including Milwaukee Brewers closer Devin Williams and Houston Astros closer Ryan Pressly, is working with a day of rest. The lineup starts with Trout, Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, is followed by four All-Star-caliber players of DeRosa's choice and ends with red-hot Trea Turner. It's the sort of challenge not even the best pitchers in the world can take on without butterflies colonizing their stomachs.
That's whom they'll be up against, though: Kuriyama tabbed left-hander Shota Imanaga to start the game and is pocketing San Diego Padres star Yu Darvish -- who skipped spring training to be with the Japanese team for its early workouts -- to use in midgame leverage situations. If Japan's lineup -- which includes Ohtani, Boston Red Sox rookie Masataka Yoshida and Japanese home run king Munetaka Murakami batting third, fourth and fifth -- can get to presumed Team USA starter Merrill Kelly, Ohtani is the best bet to pitch the ninth in his first relief appearance since closing out a game in the 2016 NPB playoffs.
It's easy to point out the flaws of the WBC. The timing isn't great, with starting pitchers not stretched out and thus less likely to commit to such intense competition out of fear of hurting themselves. The injuries -- New York Mets closer Edwin Díaz suffering a torn patellar tendon celebrating Puerto Rico beating the mighty Dominican Republic and Houston second baseman José Altuve breaking his thumb on an errant Daniel Bard fastball -- are fuel for skeptics whose tanks otherwise grow emptier by the day.
What they don't understand -- what they actively choose not to understand -- is that baseball is about more than Major League Baseball. It is truly a game for the world, from the U.S. to Japan to Cuba to Mexico to the D.R. to Puerto Rico to Venezuela and beyond. And the WBC has filled a vacuum that for too long existed, bringing together disparate baseball cultures and allowing them, too, to meld into something bigger and better.
"There's no reason why the stars of our game should not be playing in this," said Team USA third baseman Arenado, who is, along with St. Louis Cardinals teammate Goldschmidt, the only returning player from the 2017 championship group.
It's safe to say that the 2026 incarnation of the WBC will have significantly more returnees. Trout, the Team USA captain, has developed a strong relationship with Betts, someone with whom he shares so much in common but never knew because their interactions were limited to the hustle and bustle of All-Star Games and occasional matchups between their teams. Both have pledged to return -- and Bryce Harper, who had planned to play for Team USA until Tommy John surgery sidelined him, could join them and constitute an outfield of three future Hall of Famers.
The hope is that a generation of kids today is watching this WBC and gleaning indelible moments from it. It's damn near impossible to see Turner's go-ahead grand slam against Venezuela and not appreciate the deed itself. Down late, elimination looming, one of the best players in the world, relegated to the No. 9 hole on account of the brilliance surrounding him daily, taking a swing for the ages.
"These guys are the best at what they do, they're ultimate competitors, and in an environment like that there is 100% buy-in," DeRosa said. "It just happens organically. And to represent your country, it means the world. Maybe it doesn't start out that way, but I mean, it has become that. These guys want it."
Team USA will come together one final time Tuesday night. They'll take their last bus ride to the stadium and hit the cages knowing there won't be any more messing around with Griff and Mac and Young and button up their jerseys realizing the inevitability that three or so hours later, when they take them off, they'll do so for good. Or at least for the next three years, at which point maybe they'll gather in hopes they once again can put the "team" in Team USA.