As the iridescent fog settled into Chavez Ravine during the seventh inning of the World Baseball Classic’s second semi-final, the tension in Dodger Stadium simmered low. The crowd was sparse, yet dedicated, having shown up during the height of the day’s rain shower and persevered throughout under umbrellas, rain jackets, and ponchos.
Hundreds of Japanese baseball fans waved the hinomaru as a brass band cheered on their national all-stars from the outfield bleachers. When it was the Americans’ turn to bat, a drum section behind home plate, in the upper deck reserves, led a smattering of fans seeking shelter in a series of chants and songs more common at an international soccer match.
In a rainless feat the night before, during the first semi-final, 25,000 packed the same building to witness Puerto Rico edge out the Netherlands to advance to the WBC’s single-game, championship playoff. Yet, that game’s final run carries a perverse asterisk, scored on a sacrifice fly to center field that was facilitated by a misguided experiment in speeding up play. Fortunately, there would be no bastardization of the pastime this evening.
Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfielder Andrew McCutchen broke the scoreless stalemate in the fourth inning with a hard hit grounder to left, splitting Japan’s infielders and scoring Christian Yelich from third base. Whether it was the cold, the rain, or their pre-season form, that run remained the only one on the board until the bottom of the sixth when Ryosuke Kikuchi woke the crowd with a shallow homerun to right. Shifting momentum, the two-time WBC champions handed the tie to reliever Kodai Senga, who hadn’t allowed a run in ten innings of tournament play. The potential comeback heightened the crowd’s attention to the game and off the mist.
Defense and pitching had their opportunity to shine, and small ball ruled the night overall. The U.S. turned a swift double play in the second, and Japan threw out a baserunner in the sixth. An interminable series of reviewed tags and force-outs lowlighted the third. Combining for 18 strikeouts, neither side seemed entirely comfortable at the plate, and couldn’t sustain another productive sequence of batters until the top of the eighth when, with one out, Adam Jones drilled a pitch that the third baseman couldn’t handle and the winning run crossed home plate.
Back in Florida and Phoenix, the majority of Major League Baseball’s athletes have gone about their spring routines as usual. Some have shown encouraging progress, warming up for a new season with an inning or two of Grapefruit and Cactus League ball at a time. Other big leaguers, shouldering enormous expectations (looking at you Matt Harvey), have started slow and concern among the fanbase has started to mount. But until Opening Day none of that really matters just yet. It’s just Spring Training.
The baseball being played this week in Los Angeles, though, is a different story. As the culmination of the month-long Classic nears, a few dozen baseball men representing Puerto Rico and the U.S. remain—superstars and journeymen alike—who have competed with the enthusiasm of an October playoff run (although some players on the U.S. team seem stubbornly misguided/idiotic). Tuesday night’s diehard crowd sizzled in the rain, hanging on every called ball and strike.
As we approached Dodger Stadium before the game, walking up Lilac Street to the Sunset Gate, a neighbor stopped us to ask, “Is it opening day?” Not quite, but the WBC has rekindled our passion for the game and it can’t come soon enough.