LOS ANGELES (AP) — Brandon Crawford scored the tiebreaking run when Nobuhiro Matsuda bobbled Adam Jones’ grounder to third in the eighth inning, and the United States reached the championship game of the World Baseball Classic for the first time by beating Japan 2-1 on Tuesday night at rainy Dodger Stadium.
Andrew McCutchen drove in an early run for the U.S., which will play Puerto Rico for the title Wednesday night. Puerto Rico beat the Netherlands 4-3 in 11 innings Monday.
The World Baseball Classic final has been played in the United States in each of its four editions, but the home team had never made it.
The Americans only reached the semifinals once before, in 2009. But this All-Star-laden roster has won two straight elimination games to earn the chance for its first crown.
Ryosuke Kikuchi hit a tying homer off reliever Nate Jones in the sixth inning for Japan, but the two-time WBC champions were twice let down by their normally sturdy defense on a rain-soaked night at Chavez Ravine, where an intermittent downpour kept fans in ponchos.
McCutchen opened the scoring with an RBI single in the fourth inning moments after Kikuchi’s two-base error at second. In the eighth, Crawford likely would have been out at the plate on Jones’ innocent grounder, but Matsuda didn’t field it cleanly and had to throw to first.
Japan, unbeaten coming into the game, won the first two WBC tournaments before losing in the semifinals in 2013.
Tanner Roark pitched four scoreless innings of two-hit ball before U.S. manager Jim Leyland went to his bullpen early and liberally. His sixth reliever, Luke Gregerson, pitched a perfect ninth inning after Pat Neshek escaped a two-on jam in the eighth.
Although the crowd of 33,462 strongly favored the team with five California natives in the starting lineup, thousands of Japanese fans showed up early and chanted throughout the game, accompanied by the brass band in the left-field bleachers.
A light, misting rain started falling several hours before game time, forcing the teams to take batting practice indoors while a tarp covered the infield. The wet weather, unusual for Los Angeles, eventually soaked the playing field and forced grounds crews to tend to the infield dirt between innings.
But the WBC couldn’t really afford a rainout day, given its tight schedule in the final weeks of big league spring training.
Leyland kept a lineup with eight All-Stars, making only one change from the team that beat the Dominican Republic on Saturday to avoid elimination. Buster Posey was behind the plate, continuing his alternation with Jonathan Lucroy, apparently in accordance with their major league teams’ wishes.
Tomoyuki Sugano, the Yomiuri Giants ace with a seven-pitch repertoire, tossed six innings of three-hit ball for Japan, striking out six and yielding only one unearned run.
“He’s a big league pitcher,” Leyland said before the game.
But Sugano was matched by Roark, who had given up three runs over 1 1/3 innings in his only previous WBC appearance. The Washington Nationals right-hander was largely outstanding against Japan, giving up just two singles and a walk and hitting a batter with a pitch. After Christian Yelich reached second in the fourth inning when his hard-hit grounder was mishandled by Kikuchi, the standout defensive second baseman, Eric Hosmer worked out of an 0-2 count to draw a two-out walk.
McCutchen had just two hits in his first 14 at-bats in the WBC, but he drove in Yelich with a sharp single to left.
Kikuchi atoned for his mistake in the sixth, driving Jones’ fastball barely over the reach of McCutchen in right field for his first homer of the tournament.
Japan reliever Kodai Senga struck out the first four batters he faced with a 96 mph fastball and exceptional off-speed stuff, but Crawford then delivered a sharp single before Ian Kinsler doubled to deep left-center.
Neshek got cleanup hitter Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh on a fly to right to end the eighth.