World Baseball Classic: Russell’s Thoughts

The 2023 World Baseball Classic was a roaring success; there’s no other way to really describe it. It had upsets, thrilling knockout games and had an ending, which if scripted, would have been called too much. It’s not to say it was without issues or a perfect event, but on the field, it went as well as most of us could have hoped for.

Twenty teams across five continents took part in this year’s WBC. It was a record number, with it expanding from 16 teams in the 2017 competition. The teams were split into four pools which were played in Taichung, Tokyo, Phoenix, and Miami. We had everything from a pool of chaos where everyone finished on 2-2 to massive upsets and Mercy-rule finishes.

In Pool A, Australia beat one of the pre-tournament favourites Korea, and in Pool C, Colombia started with a victory over eventual semi-finalists, Mexico, before going on to be upset by Great Britain a few days later. The bookies’ favourites, the Dominican Republic, failed to make it out of Pool D after being shut down in key games by Luis Garcia and Marcus Stroman

Knockout Success

The way the pools lined, we were in a situation where both Pools C and D had a win-you-got-through, lose-you-go-home games. The match between Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic had an atmosphere that would rival any sports event anywhere across the globe.

The quarter-finals were incredibly tight; every team bar Italy led at one point in their games. I was lucky enough to see the two quarter-finals in Miami in person and the atmospheres were amazing. The slow comeback of the Mexican team after they gave up four runs in the first, with Mexican fans gradually out-cheering the massive number of Puerto Rican fans, was a sight to see.

Watching the USA v Venezuela match was an incredible experience as the crowd was maybe 60-65% Venezuelan fans and they were making so much noise. When they took the lead in the sixth inning, I felt they could blow the roof off with the noise.

Throughout the tournament, the USA fans had been easily out-chanted by a number of teams they played against, but the moment Trea Turner hit THAT home run, they were the loudest I’d ever heard them.

Their reaction along with the reaction of the USA players is something I will not forget for the rest of my life.  Mark DeRosa said in the post-game conference that he’d played in the Venezuelan Winter League in Caracas and wanted to make sure that his team met the energy that the Venezuela team would produce. They sure did.

It seemed obvious that was the moment of the tournament, but little did I know it would be relegated by one or two, even more, incredible highlights.

The first semi-final was a bit of a dud when Cuba failed to shut down the USA bats who scored in seven of the eight innings. I’m not certain if it was jet lag, 13 hours difference from Tokyo to Miami, or something else, but after lead-off hitter Roel Santos’ first-inning run, Cuba failed to score another off struggling Adam Wainwright despite enjoying the bases-loaded, 0 outs situation.

The second semi-final couldn’t have been more different. The game started with a slightly unexpected pitching duel. Maybe I’m being harsh on Angels’ Patrick Sandoval, but I don’t think anyone expected him to go toe-to-toe with the young Japanese phenom Roki Sasaki. But he did, and he even outperformed him on the night.

Both sides were held scoreless for the first three innings, then in the fourth, Mexico got two, two-out base runners. Tellez got a single against the shift when he swung on a pitch outside the zone but managed to drive it the other way. Isaac Parades then hit a perfectly placed blop over Japanese third baseman Munetaka Murakami into short left field.This brought up Luis Urias, who punished a hung splitter from Sasaki, 403ft to left field. This gave Mexico a 3-0 lead, and the Mexican fans went crazy. The Mexico chants were very loud for the next few minutes.

Sandoval allowed two base runners himself in the bottom of the fourth but struck out Murakami for the second time to end the inning. Japan tried to stop any more runs by bringing in the MVP and Eiji Sawamura Award winner (NPB Cy Young) for the last two seasons in the Pacific League, Yoshinobu Yamamoto. And he did, putting up zeros for the fifth, sixth and seventh Innings.

Whilst this was going on, Japan left the bases loaded in the fifth and sixth innings. This involved a home run robbery from Randy Arozarena, and multiple other catches as the ball just seemed to be finding him on almost every play.

And then in the seventh, they finally got their hit with runners in scoring position.

Japan got themselves two, two-out base runners thanks to a single from Kondoh and a walk to Ohtani. Then Masataka Yoshida hit a low inside pitch from almost down on one knee out of the park. It had an extremely high launch angle and was curling foul, everyone in the stadium took a deep breath looking to see if it was going to make it and stay fair. It smacked off the foul pole, and the Japanese fans went wild.

It felt like a momentum swing, but Arozarena was having none of that he immediately doubled to start the top of the eighth, and he was driven in straight away by Verdugo. Mexico tacked on one more in this inning with a single and some grounds out. They led 5-3 having weathered the Japanese onslaught and need just six more outs to make the WBC final.

But like a prizefighter in the late rounds of a boxing match, Japan swung back hard. An amazing bunt, despite his broken finger, from Sosuke Genda (yes, the plate appearance is worth watching) after some early baserunners meant Japan had runners on second and third with just one out. They managed a sac fly to score one but left the inning still one behind.

An efficient top of the ninth from Ota meant that Giovanni Gallegos had the chance for a save and to take Mexico to the finals. What came next may be in his nightmares for a while.

Ohtani hits a lead-off double, Yoshida walks and is pinch run for by Shuto. Up stepped Murakami who, by his lofty standards, was not only having a poor night (0-for-4 with three strikeouts), but a poor tournament.

The thought of him being golden sombrero’d by Mexico came into my mind, but it disappeared very quickly he ambushed a 94 mph middle-middle fastball and drove it into the centre wall at 111 mph. This and the instantaneous running from Shuto meant he drove in both runs to become the hero.

The Final

The opening to this game was amazing; it felt like an Olympic event, with the teams walking down the foul lines behind someone carrying a flag. It created an amazing sense of what this event was.

Both teams had ridden their better starters to get to this final, and as such their starters were going to be on short leashes. From the outset, it looked like the Japanese plan was to let the first few pitchers see each batter once and then hand the ball to Darvish and Ohtani for the eighth and ninth innings. The USA approach was to get as much as they could out of Merrily Kelly and Kye Freeland and hope their bullpen could put zeros up afterwards.

For both teams, these pitching plans went as well as they could have hoped. Kelly and Freeland gave up three runs combined, and their bullpen didn’t give up any. And for Japan, giving up just one run before handing the ball to Darvish in the eighth with a 3-1 lead was their dream start. But how did we get there?

This was a game of missed chances for hitters. There were four solo home runs, two for each team, and both left a large number of runners on base: nine for USA and eight for Japan.

Potential tournament MVP Trea Turner gave USA a lead in the second with his fifth home run of the tournament. Imanaga threw a 92 mph fastball down the middle on a 2-1 count, and Turner demolished it. He rounded the bases to MVP chants.

The USA lead didn’t last long as Murakami jumped on the first pitch from Kelly in the bottom of the second and deposited it in the second deck in right field. This is where Ohtani had been hitting bombs during BP the last two days. Japan managed to drive in another run that inning via a bases-loaded groundout to first from Nootbaar.

The importance of that run was not known at the time; it looked like both teams were going to score quite a few more. Kazuma Okamoto hit his solo homer in the fourth to put Japan 3-1 up. But as the innings went on, both teams put runners on bases but couldn’t drive them in. They both hit into multiple double plays; it was a game waiting for something to explode.

We get to the eighth inning, and in comes Yu Darvish to pitch. He’d come in for Japan in 2009 to close the game out but gave up one run before Japan scored twice in the tenth to win 5-3. He once again gave up one run here. Kyle Schwarber matched Murakami in smashing onto the second deck of right field to cut the deficit in half.

Turner then hit a single, but neither JT Realmuto nor Cedric Mullins could advance him. What that Turner single did do though, was mean that Mike Trout was guaranteed to be up in the ninth inning and he was going to face Ohtani.

Japan didn’t add anything in the top of the ninth, and we got to the last half inning with the USA down by one and Shohei Ohtani on the mound for Japan. Jeff McNeil was up first, and he had a great battle with Ohtani which ended in a walk. We were back to the top of the USA lineup, which had three MVPs in a row.

Up stepped Betts, and with the U-S-A chants getting stronger in the stadium, Mookie grounded the perfect double-play ball. He hit it directly to Japanese second baseman Tetsuto Yamada, who underhand tossed it to the shortstop Sosuke Genda who then flipped it to first baseman Kazuma Okamoto and that was two outs. The play was so efficient that Betts was barely in the shot of first base.

We then got Trout v Ohtani, the climax a number of us had been waiting for. I won’t go through it all Ben’s piece here more than covers that. But Shohei challenged Trout with his best and won. Japan won.

The celebrations started, and the WBC was over.

In the end, both teams had 11 players reach base safely (excluding the home runs), and Japan managed to drive one of them in. That was the difference.

My WBC Team

I’m honestly surprised that I only disagreed with two of the players here. I am more passionate about the Edouard Julien one than the Anthony Santander one, but for me, they both were significantly better than the winner despite having played in fewer games.

Julien was only just behind Randy for the Pool C MVP vote that I gave. He played one game less than Báez, but Julien had a 1.821 OPS compared to 1.052 for Báez.

I really wanted to put Harry ahead of Salvy, but I couldn’t do it. Perez was just a bit better across the board offensively, and while it’s amazing that he’s doing these things at age 20, he wasn’t better.

Shohei was the overall MVP, and to be honest, when he does it with bat and ball in a tournament like this, it isn’t even close.

2022 Rules v 2023 Rules

I watched two spring training games before I started watching GB warm-ups and then the WBC, and I can safely say I’m happy with most of the rule changes. I’m never going to be happy with the shift rules, but the pitch clock is definitely a step in the right direction.

So, let’s talk about the pitch clock. There were quite a few comments after the tournament going, “look, we just had an amazing tournament with the old rules; we don’t need the new rules,” and if WBC and MLB were like for like, I might be inclined to agree with them.

But it isn’t, and to be frank, it isn’t even close. In the regular season, most games don’t matter; a loss here or there means nothing. In the WBC, every game matters. It is this tension which builds in the games and masks the long pauses we got between pitches.

I’d be inclined to increase the pitch clock for the postseason, say adding another 5 seconds and maybe give the batter an extra timeout and the pitcher an extra step off. In these games, the tension we saw in the WBC should be there, and we, as fans, won’t notice.

There were games in the WBC, however, which needed that pitch clock. There was a Colombian pitcher who I timed at 35 seconds from putting his foot on the rubber before throwing his pitch. It was like watching Dan Biggar play baseball; it was infuriating, and I was sitting there shouting, “Get on with it” in the style of Monty Python’s Holy Grail in my head.

Things to improve

As I said, it wasn’t perfect. There were plenty of issues with merchandise which disappointed people both at games and those wanting to buy things online. I’m going to start with the caveat that this was probably all impacted by the MLB lockout at the start of last season. The WBC wasn’t confirmed to be actually happening in 2023 until MLB and MLBPA finished their CBA talks. High-quality merchandise takes time to mass produce which meant that MLB, the WBC and the countries were playing with shortened time on this.

That being said, the selection that was available at the games I attended was poor. I only saw USA jerseys available in Phoenix; there were a few team hats, but they were mostly USA ones. If you wanted anything else, you were out of luck. The t-shirts they did have for each team were black shirts with “Country” and the flag on it… a truly uninspiring combo. A few teams had slightly more interesting shirts available but on the whole, mostly naff.

Simple momentoes like WBC baseballs with the flags on them weren’t present in the stores and checked in both Phoenix and Miami.

I went to the tournament with the idea that I might pick up a few hats and baseball jerseys but I returned home with a WBC cap, and that is all. I would very much like a Colombian (Blue one) and Mexican (White, light pink and blue one) jersey, but I couldn’t get what I wanted. It feels like there was a lot of money left on the table here and an own goal which MLB doesn’t usually make.

Why was the final on a Tuesday evening? What kinda nonsense was that? The coverage stateside was on FS1 as well, not even FOX. How can anyone think that having a quarter-final and a semi-final on the weekend and not the main event is insane? This was a massive worldwide event, and they made sure that not everyone could watch it.

We’ve probably got to do something about the format as well. I have no issues with four pools in four different countries around the world, but teams coming from Asia to play finals in the US need more time to acclimate. Before Japan beat Mexico, the previous five semi-finals had been won by teams that were based in North America for the pools. The format was different for the 2009 tournament.

The only stain on this tournament from a playing perspective was the lack of top-end USA pitchers that were willing or able to take part. All of the other top teams had their best pitchers available; look at the Mexico starters! It wasn’t just the NPB/KBO top starters who were there, the top pitchers from MLB were there… they just weren’t wearing a USA jersey.

Hopefully, when they hear Mike Trout and others talk about this being one of the greatest couple weeks of their lives and they might realise what they’re missing out on.

Japan winning was the best thing that could happen to this tournament. It puts the boot up the arse of some USA players and fans about USA being the best at baseball; it wasn’t today.

Here’s to hoping that 2026 can top this amazing tournament.

Russell Eassom was Bat Flips & Nerds roving reporter at the World Baseball Classic in both Phoenix and Miami. His contribution was so widely acknowledged that he was invited to vote for the Pool C MVP, an accolade given to Bat Flips & Nerds as “the only British media outlet in Miami”.

You can follow Russ on Twitter @REassom

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