Japan plates 2 in ninth, ousts Mexico in World Baseball Classic

MIAMI -- Munetaka Murakami, a Japanese Triple Crown winner who, at 23, is already among the best hitters in the world, thought about bunting.

It was the ninth inning, two runners occupied first and second base with nobody out, and Japan trailed Mexico by a run in the World Baseball Classic semifinal, the type of moment that yearns for greatness. But Murakami didn't feel like himself. He had begun this tournament with four hits in 21 at-bats, striking out 11 times, including during his first three plate appearances Monday night. And so he pondered the possibility of simply moving the winning run into scoring position, allowing someone else his moment.

"Bunting kind of crossed my mind," Murakami said through an interpreter, "but [Japanese manager Hideki] Kuriyama told me that I just have to hit."

It was the best advice he could get.

Murakami got a 94 mph, down-the-middle fastball from Team Mexico closer Giovanny Gallegos and sent the offering 400 feet to straightaway center field, a scorching line drive that bounced off the top of the fence and allowed both runners to motor home. Murakami's long-awaited moment had highlighted another intense, back-and-forth contest in this World Baseball Classic, handing Japan the 6-5 walk-off victory that sent it into a championship showdown against Team USA.

Lars Nootbaar, bouncing in front of home plate before the winning run could score, called it "an out-of-body experience."

"The best," Masataka Yoshida said through an interpreter. "Epic."

Monday's semifinal was only the latest in a string of intense games in front of raucous sold-out crowds at multiple venues over these past couple of weeks, right up there with the recent wild swings of Mexico's upset over Puerto Rico on Friday and Team USA's grand-slam-fueled victory over Venezuela on Saturday. This year's World Baseball Classic has morphed into such a thrilling tournament that it has its participants contemplating the bigger picture -- even in defeat, as evidenced by the way Mexico manager Benji Gil summed up the affair.

"Japan advances," Gil said in Spanish, "but the world of baseball won tonight."

Mexico, a talented team that was nonetheless a clear underdog against Japan, put itself in prime position early. Patrick Sandoval dominated through the first four innings, allowing only three baserunners, and Luis Urias put his team on top with a three-run home run off Roki Sasaki, who threw almost all of his fastballs in the triple digits but didn't locate his patented splitter low enough against Urias in the fourth.

When Randy Arozarena started doing his thing -- robbing a home run, posing in front of the crowd, then signing autographs in between a pitching change moments later -- it began to feel as if Mexico was destined to advance to its first championship in this tournament.

But Yoshida, who signed a $90 million contract with the Red Sox this offseason, tied the game with a seventh-inning, three-run homer off the massive concrete beam that resides beyond the right-field foul pole at LoanDepot Park. And after Mexico retook the lead, with RBI singles from Alex Verdugo and Isaac Paredes, Japan came all the way back, tacking on a run in the eighth and producing the ninth walk-off in World Baseball Classic history the following inning.

It began with Shohei Ohtani, who laced a 110 mph leadoff double into the right-center-field gap, roaring upon arriving at second base in an effort to ignite his teammates.

"It's been a while since I've played in a win-or-lose game, in a playoff atmosphere," Ohtani, speaking through an interpreter, said of displaying rare emotion.

Yoshida followed with a walk, and Murakami, who made what he called a "minor adjustment" with his mechanics during the game, followed with what amounted to the first walk-off hit in a semifinal or later in this tournament. All of Japan's players had vacated their dugout in celebration before the second run could even score.

"Pure joy," Nootbaar said. "I didn't want to get a penalty for too many men on the field."

The U.S., reigning champion dating back to 2017, hasn't announced its starting pitcher for the championship game, but Merrill Kelly, the Arizona Diamondbacks' talented right-hander, is in line. Japan, the only undefeated team remaining, will go with the hard-throwing Shota Imanaga with a chance to claim its third title -- but Ohtani said he's willing to come into the game in relief.

Shohei Ohtani versus Mike Trout with everything on the line remains a possibility.

"Obviously it's a big accomplishment to get to the championship series," Ohtani said, "but there's a big difference from being in first and second, so I'm going to do all I can to get that first place."