Japan rallies for thrilling walk-off win over Mexico in World Baseball Classic semifinal to reach final

MIAMI — The party is now set.

The World Baseball Classic hoped all along for this epic matchup.

Come on, who doesn’t want the drama of seeing Shohei Ohtani face Mike Trout in the ninth inning of a championship game?

Well, the dream matchup is now set: Japan vs. the USA in the finals on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET on FS1).

Japan, trailing the entire game, knocked off Mexico on Munetaka Murakami’s two-run walk-off double, winning 6-5, in front of a delirious sellout crowd at loanDepot Park.

Mexico certainly did everything possible trying to ruin the party, pulling the plug on the music, shutting off the lights, and sneering in everyone’s face.

But, Ohtani and company had other ideas.

Japan, trailing 5-4 in the ninth inning, came roaring back when Ohtani led off with a double off closer Giovanny Gallegos.

Masataka Yoshida, the Boston Red Sox’s $90 million free-agent acquisition who hit a three-run homer earlier in the game, drew a walk.

That brought up Murakami, their two-time MVP, but who had badly struggled all tournament, striking out three times in the game.

It was all forgotten when he sent everyone home with a two-run double into the gap, sending all of Japan into a frenzy.

Instant bedlam.

Instant classic.

FEELING CONFIDENT: Team USA believing nobody can stop them as they reach World Baseball Classic finals

It was a heartbreaking loss for Mexico, which came into the game as the heavy underdog, spending the past two days answering questions about the greatness of Japan, and uber-talented Roki Sasaki.

My gosh, Gil said, they were facing Japan’s national team, not the ’27 Yankees with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Japan can be beat, they said. Sasaki can be hit, they told themselves. And they spent virtually the entire night proving it.

Sasaki was quite good, throwing 26 pitches at 100-mph or harder with three strikeouts, but Mexico starter Patrick Sandoval was better.

Sandoval struck out the side in the first inning, and shut down Team Japan the rest of the way, pitching 4 1/3 shutout innings, striking out six.

Ohtani was the featured attraction, but Mexico left fielder Randy Arozarena stole the show.

Mexico was leading 3-0 in the fifth inning when Kazuma Okamoto led off with moon shot to left field. The ball headed into the Japan bullpen, only for Arozarena to jump, snare it, and leave everyone in suspense whether it actually went over the fence or stayed in his glove.

Arozarena stood with his arms crossed, looking straight ahead, with Sandoval jumping up and down in exhilaration, taking off his cap, and pointing at him.

Finally, Arozarena threw the baseball back onto the field, grinned, and basked as the stadium eruprted.

It was just the warm-up act.

Japan, knocking Sandoval out of the game, with Arozarena signing autographs during the pitching change, had two runners on, two outs, when Kensuke Kondoh hit a ball towards the left-field fence. It looked like it might be a two-run double.

Nope, there was Arozarena running, crashing into the fence, and catching the ball. He flipped the ball over his right shoulder and laughed as he headed into the dugout.

Oh, and just in case people couldn’t get enough of him, Japan loaded the bases in the sixth inning off Jose Urquidy, when Sosuke Genda hit a slicing drive in left field. Arozarena raced over, and, yes, caught that ball too, tossing the ball into the stands as he slowly made his way across the field.

It was that kind of night for Arozarena, whose legend continues to grow in Mexico:


“He's a loved player here in Florida, especially Miami, of course,’’ Gil said. “But he's loved now more in Mexico than in any place in the world. Now, he’s a global star.

“He has a contagious personality. He's a star. He's a character. He's very popular, very famous. He's the favorite character in Mexico today.’’

Really, the way his teammates describe him, he’s a quiet assassin.

“In the locker room, he's quiet, reserved, relaxed,’’ Gil said. “But on the field, what he does is extraordinary. On the field, you can see his energy and not only on the field, but also in the dugout. his personality, I mean, he's infectious. He loves to play baseball. I guarantee you that if you ask him if there's anything that he could be doing — nothing outside of maybe being with his family — he would rather be playing baseball than doing anything else.

“He is in love with baseball.’’

Yet, as Arozarena and Mexico learned the hard way, this game can be heartbreaking.

Japan, who won the first two WBC championships, will be facing the defending champions.

It should be a doozy.

And, oh yeah, Ohtani says he’ll be ready to pitch in relief of Yu Darvish, just in case.

Stay tuned.

Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Japan gets walk-off win vs. Mexico in World Baseball Classic semifinal