This WBC Is a Classic
How ya feeling this morning? Maybe a little bit like this?
Yeah, that was an amazing game last night, so good that I’m honestly trying to figure out how to get it into a little book called WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL, even though I’m supposed to be done with it. I think I can do it!*
*Well, hey, since somebody mentioned WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL, I should point out that if you preorder from our good friends at Rainy Day Books, I’ll sign and personally inscribe the book any way you like. Well, I mean, I’ll sign it with my name, I’m not going to sign it “Shohei Ohtani” or “Foster Brooks” or anything like that, but I will let you tell me how to inscribe it. And I believe we’re going to have some fun prizes to give away as part of the deal also.
I’d like to talk about tonight’s final between the U.S. and Japan — I can’t remember the last time I was so excited for a single-elimination baseball game. Maybe Nationals-Astros in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series? Nah, that series had not been all that compelling. Dodgers-Astros in 2017? Maybe we have to go all the way back to Cleveland-Cubbies Game 7 in 2016? Point is, tonight is going to be a blast.
But before we get there, let me just offer this quick, seven-chapter rundown of last night’s game.
Chapter 1: Japan started 21-year-old Rōki Sasaki, and I have to tell you he’s SO much fun to watch pitch. He blends a 101-mph fastball with all sorts of incredible secondary stuff; MLB executives are DROOLING about him pitching in the big leagues. For some reason, in my mind I have connected Sasaki with a prodigy in a different sport, tennis’ Carlos Alcaraz; they both just feel like a gift from the future.
Chapter 2: Sasaki made one mistake … but it was a doozy. He left a split-fingered fastball dangling up in the zone. At the plate was the very solid Luis Urías, and that pitch hit his eye like a big pizza pie. He blasted it over the leftfield wall — 403 feet — for a three-run homer that gave Mexico a 3-0 lead.
Chapter 3: Randy Arozarena. Randy Arozarena. Randy Arozarena.
OK, that was Kazuma Okamoto who hit the long fly ball, and my favorite part of the thing is the way Arozarena appears to be following the ball into the stands with his eyes and only then, after fooling everybody in the place, leaps up to make the catch. He then does the Arozarena stare thing that is so utterly wonderful. We’ll hear from him again.
Chapter 4: Randy Arozarena. Randy Arozarena. Randy Arozarena.
That catch off a blast by Kensuka Kondoh wasn’t quite as flashy or magical as the first one, but it was even more important because the bases were loaded at the time. The no-look way he just flips the ball over his head into the crowd immediately after catching it adds that much more joy to the moment.
Chapter 5: Red Sox rookie Masataka Yoshida is one of the most fascinating figures in baseball this season. He was a big star in Japan — a lifetime .326/.419/.548 hitter — but some scouts question how that will translate into MLB because he’s only 5-foot-8 and there’s some disagreement over his ability to consistently handle high-velocity fastballs. Here, the high-velocity fastball didn’t come into play.
Instead, Mexico’s lefty JoJo Romero went with the changeup — something he almost never does to lefthanded batters — and Yoshida got under it and hit a very, very, very high fly ball down the leftfield line. The launch angle was 41 degrees — it’s pretty rare to see a 41-degree home run; I went to Statcast™ to look at some of the 38 41-degree home runs hit last year. The announcer comments were telling:
“That one’s in the rafters!”
“Wow, that homer is going to bring rain.”
“High, towering fly ball.”
“Clear the decks for a Cruz cannonball!”
OK, the last one doesn’t refer to the home run’s height, but I like that call for Oneil Cruz. Anyway, Yoshida’s super-high fly ball only traveled 366 feet but he hit it in the perfect spot down the line and it stayed fair, a three-run homer that tied the game. It’s like he’s already aiming for the Pesky Pole.
Chapter 6: Randy Arozarena. Randy Arozarena. Randy Arozarena.
Don’t you get the feeling that if the season were a succession of World Series and World Baseball Classics instead of the 162-game marathon that it is, Arozarena would be the best player in baseball? It seems like his only weakness as a baseball player is boredom. With one out in the eighth inning, he hit a screaming double — his record-breaking sixth double of the tournament — and he came around to score on Alex Verdugo’s double, and then Mexico scored another run to take a 5-3 lead.
Chapter 7: And finally, there was the big finish. Japan trailed by one going into the ninth inning, and up stepped Shohei Ohtani. Mexico’s reliever Giovanny Gallego started off with a changeup that was high and perhaps out of the zone, but Ohtani is Ohtani, and he ripped it into the gap for a double. Gallego then walked Yoshida.
And up stepped Munetaka Murakami, who hit 56 home runs for the Yakult Swallows last year, setting the record for a Japanese-born player. Murakami will draw offers of many millions of dollars when he’s eligible for MLB. He’d struck out twice in clutch situations during this game. Not this time.
What a night.
And, incredibly, it leads to another night — USA vs. Japan, East vs. West, Trout vs. Shohei. Mookie vs. Yoshida, I’m literally counting the minutes.
And while counting those minutes, I want to talk about one more fun thing.