PREVIEW: Dominant throughout WBC, Japan and USA set for final clash

Photo Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Dominant throughout WBC, Japan and USA set for final clash

MIAMI — Team USA, which prevailed in the most recent World Baseball Classic in 2017, is one win away from repeating as champions.

The Americans, who will play Japan for the title on Tuesday night at LoanDepot Park, are clearly excited to go for the gold. USA is 5-1 with a plus-24 run differential in this tournament — though Japan is 6-0 with a plus-37.

“We’re in spring-training mode, but we’re also playing for our country,” USA pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “We’re not playing for money. We’re playing because we love this game, and we love this country.

“I’m proud to be out here.”

Wainwright, who won a World Series title in 2006, said he has been impressed with the WBC crowds.

“That is the wildest environment I’ve ever pitched in,” Wainwright said after USA beat Cuba 14-2 in a semifinal game on Sunday. “Fans were going crazy.

“It’s been like that every round. It seems like every fan is on their feet cheering. You can barely hear yourself talk in the dugout. You can barely hear yourself think on the mound. You have to really focus.”

Team USA’s batting order is clearly focused, especially shortstop Trea Turner, who has hit three homers in the past two games, driving in eight runs.

Turner’s two homers on Sunday made him just the second American to hit multiple dingers in a WBC game. Ken Griffey Jr. first accomplished the feat in 2006. Griffey is USA’s current hitting coach.

“I just want to win,” said Turner, who is the first WBC player ever to have four-plus RBI in consecutive games. “That stuff (records) is for my family. I know they’re proud of me. I just like playing baseball and coming out on top.”

There is one concern for USA, however. The Americans could be without star third baseman Nolan Arenado, who was hit by a pitch on Sunday. X-rays on his right hand were negative.

As for Tuesday’s pitching matchup, while neither starter has been officially named, the United States has Merrill Kelly lined up to start, while Japan would likely go with Yu Darvish or lefty Shota Imanaga. Kelly and Darvish are both righties.

Kelly, 34, has never pitched a major league postseason game. His career numbers are 36-35 with a 3.96 ERA.

Darvish, 36, is 95-75 with a 3.50 ERA. He does have plenty of playoff experience in the majors, playing in 11 games (all starts). Last season he was 2-1 with a 2.88 ERA in four playoff games.

Imanaga, 29, has pitched in Japan’s top league for seven seasons, posting a 57-46 record with a 3.24 ERA in 143 career games (24 starts).

Japan advanced in the other semifinal by beating Mexico 6-5 on Monday as Munetaka Murakami slugged a two-run, walk-off double in the ninth inning of a wild game that saw Japan score six runs in the final three innings and come from behind twice.

Mexico led 5-4 entering the ninth before Japan rallied, starting with a leadoff double by Angels two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani.

On Tuesday, Ohtani could be an option out of the bullpen.

“I will be prepared to pitch,” Ohtani said after Monday’s game. “But, before that, I will make sure I put some runs on the board.”

Japan has probably the deepest pitching staff in the WBC, including Ryoji Kuribayashi, who has 68 saves in two seasons in Japan’s top professional league, the Nippon League. Japan also has Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who has a 1.95 career ERA over 733 in the Nippon League.

USA on Tuesday will face a tradition-rich baseball program. Japan, the only team to win consecutive World Baseball Classic titles — prevailing in 2006 and 2009 — has made it to at least the semifinals in every WBC.

–Walter Villa, Field Level Media

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