Samurai Japan wrested the World Baseball Classic championship away from Team USA Tuesday night in Miami because Lars Nootbaar produced when he had to and the best the U.S. had to offer didn’t.
The final score was 3-2. Shohei Ohtani, the greatest player in the world, struck out Mike Trout, the other greatest player in the world, for the championship-clinching out.
It was the third WBC title for Japan, which also won in 2006 and 2009. The U.S. was trying to defend its 2017 championship.
World Baseball Classic: Japan 3, United States 2
For all the drama generated by the spectacle of those storied Angels teammates facing off at the climactic point with the title in the line, the game really turned on a mere handful of clutch moments.
Nootbaar helped Japan cash its first and biggest such opportunity. On the other side, an All Star heart of the team USA order — Mookie Betts, Trout, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado — failed time after time to hit with the championship on the line.
Both teams produced a pair of solo home runs: Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber for the U.S. side, Munetaka Murakami and Kazuma Okamoto for Japan.
So the difference turned out to be that one run Japan had to work for … that and all Team USA’s missed opportunities.
Nootbaar’s decisive RBI touched home plate back in the second inning in the most innocent of ways. After Murakami had matched Turner’s home run with one of his own, Okamoto singled, took second on a Sosuke Genda base hit, and got third when USA starter Merrill Kelly walked Yuhei Nakamura to load the bases.
With Aaron Loup called to relieve Kelly, Nootbaar sent a ground ball toward Goldschmidt at first. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to allow Okamoto to touch home plate with the go-ahead run.
The rest of the night consisted of a failed USA exercise in coming up with a key hit against a succession of seven Japan pitchers. Over the course of those failures, 10 Team USA runners were stranded on base, five of them in scoring position.
The four sticks at the top of the Team USA lineup (Betts, Trout, Goldschmidt and Arenado) were a combined 2-for-9 with runners on base, and both of those hits were singles with a runner on first.
Trout’s game-ending strikeout was his third of a personally frustrating night that saw him strand three runners. He did produce a first-inning one-out double, but Goldschmidt fanned and Arenado rolled to first, setting the tone for what was to come.
After Turner’s second inning home run, J.T. Realmuto and Tim Anderson wrapped base hits around a Cedric Mullins’ strikeout. But Betts flied out to left.
Betts opened the fifth with an infield single, only to watch Trout and Goldschmidt go down on strikes, the latter looking. Arenado followed with a base hit, but Schwarber flied to center to kill that threat.
A Goldschmidt double play ball ended a seventh-inning threat that saw him batting with Jeff McNeil and Betts on base. In the ninth, McNeil led off by drawing a walk from Ohtani, but Betts rolled a 6-4-3 double play grounder that preceded Ohtani’s confrontation with Trout.
The Team USA offensive failures were a stunning turnaround from the nine- and 14-run explosions that had carried them through their two previous knockout round wins. But they were simultaneously a tribute to Samurai Japan’s clutch pitching. The U.S. outhit Japan 9-5, and the three Japan hits that stayed on the playing field were all singles.