LOS ANGELES — Luke Gregerson’s final strike breezed past Nobuhiro Matsuda, and the rain-drenched American players celebrated on the field while a soaked crowd roared through the evening mist.
A daylong downpour couldn’t dampen this resilient United States club or its fans, who will finally get to root for the home team in a World Baseball Classic championship game.
Brandon Crawford scored the tiebreaking run when Matsuda bobbled Adam Jones’ grounder to third in the eighth inning, and the United States reached the WBC final for the first time by beating Japan 2-1 on Tuesday night at rainy Dodger Stadium.
Andrew McCutchen drove in an early run for the U.S., which will play Puerto Rico for the title Wednesday night. Puerto Rico edged the Netherlands 4-3 in 11 innings Monday.
“It means a heck of a lot,” said McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates slugger. “We’ve got a great group of guys on this team who have dedicated this time to be able to try and win some ballgames. Sacrifices had to be made, and there are no egos when that door opens. That’s what’s good about this team. Everybody is a superstar on this team. There are no egos.”
The World Baseball Classic final has been played in the United States in each of its four editions, but the home team had never been able to play America’s pastime on what has become its biggest international stage. The U.S. only reached the semifinals once before, in 2009.
While manager Jim Leyland’s current roster is missing Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout and many other American superstars, the All-Star-laden group that decided to participate has won two straight elimination games to earn a chance for the U.S.’ first crown.
“Coming into this event, I didn’t really want to talk about the fact that the United States has never won it (and) they’ve never gone to the finals,” Leyland said. “I didn’t think that was a big deal. I wanted this, for the players, to be a memory. I’ve talked a lot about it. Make a memory. Hopefully it’s a real good one, regardless of the results (Wednesday). I know it is for me. It’s been an absolute honor.”
To reach the final, the Americans had to persevere through an uncharacteristic Los Angeles rain that drenched the playing field several hours before game time. They also had to beat a gifted Japanese team at its own game: pitching, defense and small ball.
Ryosuke Kikuchi hit a tying homer off reliever Nate Jones in the sixth inning for Japan, but the two-time WBC champions were twice let down by their normally sturdy defense.
McCutchen opened the scoring with an RBI single in the fourth moments after Kikuchi’s two-base error at second. In the eighth, Crawford likely would have been out at the plate on Jones’ innocent grounder, but Matsuda didn’t field it cleanly and had to throw to first.
“Well, two plays,” Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said through a translator. “Honestly, there were some mistakes, and then a run was scored. … The team that makes mistakes will lose. That’s what it means. I cannot blame them, though, for doing that.”
Japan won the first two WBC tournaments before losing in the 2013 semifinals, and Kokubo’s current team was unbeaten in this event.
“The players really did their very best,” Kokubo said. “I really appreciate it. It’s do-or-die, one semifinal.”
Tanner Roark pitched four scoreless innings of two-hit ball before Leyland pulled him on the instructions of the Nationals, who limited Roark to 50 pitches because he hadn’t faced live hitters in nine days.
“I felt good enough to stay out there,” Roark said.
Gregerson, the Americans’ sixth reliever, worked a perfect ninth inning after Pat Neshek escaped a two-on jam in the eighth.
Leyland is confident he’ll have a capable bullpen Wednesday after receiving texts from various pitching coaches around the majors on the status of their players. Toronto’s Marcus Stroman, the starter, is free to reach the WBC’s 95-pitch limit, Leyland confirmed.
Although the crowd of 33,462 strongly favored the team with five California natives in the starting lineup, thousands of Japanese fans showed up early and chanted throughout the game, accompanied by the brass band in the left-field bleachers.
Tomoyuki Sugano, the Yomiuri Giants ace with a seven-pitch repertoire, tossed six innings of three-hit ball for Japan, striking out six and yielding only one unearned run.
But Sugano was matched by Roark, who gave up just two singles and a walk in his four innings, also hitting a batter with a pitch.
After Christian Yelich reached second in the fourth inning when his hard-hit grounder was mishandled by Kikuchi, the standout defensive second baseman, Eric Hosmer worked out of an 0-2 count to draw a two-out walk.
McCutchen had just two hits in his first 14 at-bats in the WBC, but he drove in Yelich with a sharp single to left.
Kikuchi made up for his mistake in the sixth, driving Jones’ fastball barely over the reach of McCutchen in right field for his first homer of the tournament.
Japan reliever Kodai Senga struck out the first four batters he faced with a 96 mph fastball and exceptional off-speed stuff, but Crawford then delivered a sharp single before Ian Kinsler doubled to deep left-center.
Neshek got cleanup hitter Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh on a fly to right to end the eighth.
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