Japan Walks Off To Beat Mexico In WBC Semifinals Thriller

Image credit: Munetaka Murakami (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

MIAMI — When Munetaka Murakami stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning on Monday, he had not had a good night.

Murakami, 23, is Japan’s pre-eminent slugger. He hit 56 home runs last season to break Sadaharu Oh’s record for the most in a season by a Japanese-born player. He won the Triple Crown in Japan’s Central League and his second straight MVP award. He is widely considered the top position player in Japan and will be hotly pursued by MLB teams when he is posted after the 2025 season.

But on this night, with a spot in the World Baseball Classic championship game on the line, Murakami was a liability. He struck out in each of his first three at-bats, continuing a tournament-long slump. Murakami hit .190 with 11 strikeouts in his first 21 at-bats in the WBC. He was, in his own words, “really depressed” about his performance. For all intents and purposes, he was falling flat in his first chance to showcase his ability to the wider baseball world.

With one mighty swing, Murakami changed all of that, and sent Japan to the WBC finals.

Murakami hit a walkoff, two-run double in the bottom of the ninth inning to complete a stunning comeback and give Japan a 6-5 win over Mexico in the WBC semifinals. Murakami’s shot off the wall in left-center scored Shohei Ohtani with the tying run and pinch-runner Ukyo Shoto with the winning run, sending Japan’s bench into a state of bedlam and shocking Mexico.

Japan never led until the winning run crossed plate.

“I had to do it,” Murakami said through an interpreter. “That’s all I was thinking. There were so many times that I had a chance to do it but didn’t hit in those opportunities. Bunting kind of crossed my mind, but (manager Hideki) Kuriyama told me that I just have to hit.”

Japan will face Team USA in a highly-anticipated matchup in the WBC championship game on Tuesday. Team USA, the reigning WBC champion, will aim to defend its title. Japan, who is undefeated in the tournament, will try to win its third WBC championship and first since 2009.

“For it to be Team USA versus Japan … I think that’s special,” Team Japan center fielder Lars Nootbaar said. “It’s two countries that love baseball that are all going to be watching. We’re looking forward to it.”

Murakami’s walkoff drive completed 3 hours and 36 minutes of tension, drama and exhilaration in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd at loanDepot Park. Mexico never trailed and delivered most of the highlight-reel moments, but Japan never went away.

Japanese wunderkind Roki Sasaki made his first start on U.S. soil and thrilled, throwing 22 pitches over 100 mph and getting 12 swings and misses, the most of any pitcher in the game. Angels lefthander Patrick Sandoval matched him pitch for pitch for Mexico, however, and the game remained a scoreless stalemate until the fourth inning.

Sasaki got two quick outs to begin the top of the fourth before Rowdy Tellez rolled a weak grounder through the open left side of the infield to keep the inning alive with two outs. Isaac Paredes followed with a broken-bat flare that fell in over the head of the third baseman Murakami into shallow left.

After the two bad-luck singles, Sasaki made his one mistake. He hung an 0-1 pitch that stayed up over the plate, and Luis Urias didn’t miss it. The Brewers infielder hammered the ball deep into the night for a majestic three-run home run that cleared the left-field fence with room to spare. Urias pounded his chest as he rounded the bases. Mexico’s players came streaming out of the dugout in celebration.

Mexico, having already taken down tournament titans USA and Puerto Rico, led 3-0 against the WBC’s lone undefeated team.

Every Japanese attempt to cut the deficit was thwarted. Kazuma Okamoto led off the fifth with a towering fly ball that appeared destined to leave the park, but Mexico left fielder Randy Arozarena continued his sensational WBC with a leaping catch at the wall to rob Okamoto of a home run.

Japan then left the bases loaded in both the fifth and sixth innings, with Arozarena making running catches to end the threats each time.

“I think everybody would agree that (Arozarena) is awesome for baseball,” Mexico manager Benji Gil said. “He’s awesome for baseball. He’s awesome for Cuba. He’s awesome for Mexico. He’s awesome for wherever baseball’s played. Wherever this series was watched, he was awesome for that place.”

With Mexico up 3-0 and appearing firmly in control, Japan suddenly erupted to get back into the game. Kensuke Kondoh singled with two outs in the seventh and Ohtani walked to bring Masataka Yoshida to the plate as the tying run. Yoshida worked the count 2-2, got a changeup low and inside from Mexico lefthander JoJo Romero and turned on it, sending a towering drive that stayed just inside the right-field foul pole for a stunning, game-tying three-run homer.

I was really worn down, so … the changeup, I think I was able to hit that,” Yoshida said. “I was able to put the bat underneath the ball, and I’m glad I was able to hit it out.”

Yoshida’s blast commenced a flurry of tense, back-and-forth action in the final innings. Mexico rebounded to take a 4-3 lead in the top of the eighth on back-to-back doubles by Arozarena and Alex Verdugo. Isaac Paredes drilled a single into left field with runners on second and third to bring home another run and make it 5-3, but Yoshida critically threw out the trailing runner at the plate from left field to end the inning and keep the deficit at just two runs. Japan got one back on a sacrifice fly by pinch-hitter Hotaka Yamakawa in the bottom of the eight and Mexico went quietly in its final at-bats to make it a 5-4 game heading into the bottom of the ninth.

Japan, down to its final three outs, turned the game on its head in a dizzying span of three batters. Shohei Ohtani ripped a double into the right-field gap off Mexico closer Giovanny Gallegos to open the inning and give Japan the tying run in scoring position immediately. Yoshida followed with a walk and was pinch-run for by Shuto, a former NPB stolen base champion.

Up stepped Murakami, who was so down on himself he thought he might get pinch-hit for. He fouled away a 94 mph fastball down the middle from Gallegos to start the at-bat, a sign of just how pronounced his struggles had become. He took a slider in the dirt for a ball on the next pitch to even the count.

Gallegos threw Murakami another 94 mph fastball on the next pitch. This one, too, was over the heart of the plate. This time, Murakami didn’t miss it.

Murakami sent a missile that carried 400 feet to the wall and banged hard off the out-of-town scoreboard. Ohtani raced home from second to score the tying run easily. Shuto, just a few steps behind him, rounded third before the ball even got to the cutoff man. Shuto slid into home well ahead of the throw, which was off-target anyway, and jumped into the celebratory mob of teammates that awaited him.

“For me, it was kind of like an out-of-body experience,” Nootbaar said. “I didn’t really know what to expect. As soon as he hit it, I saw it was going to split the gap, and I looked at Shuto, and he was almost passing up Ohtani, so I knew he had a good chance that he was going to be scoring. (It was) pure joy.”

Added Murakami: “Myself, I think I was in really in the low period during that time. So I think that the team, everybody, all the team members really supported me and the kind words were really good. We are a unified team, and that was excellent on the team.”

Japan, after trailing the entire game, remains unbeaten in the WBC. It is now 6-0 and will try to become just the second team to go undefeated through the tournament, joining the Dominican Republic in 2013. In its way stands Team USA, the defending champion who boasts a roster of 19 all-stars and three MVP award winners.

“I think we can prove how good Japanese baseball world is in the world,” Yoshida said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for us to prove that.”

Mexico, meanwhile, ends its Cinderella run after winning Pool C and advancing to the WBC semifinals, the furthest any Mexican national team has ever advanced in a major international sporting event.

In the end, it all came down to one final at-bat, in one final dramatic moment.

“Japan advances,” Gil said, “but the world of baseball won tonight.”

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