World Baseball Classic
WBC championship preview: USA faces fiercest test yet in clash with Japan
World Baseball Classic

WBC championship preview: USA faces fiercest test yet in clash with Japan

Updated Mar. 21, 2023 2:00 p.m. ET

It's fitting that after all the spectacular plays, improbable upsets, furious comebacks, unforgettable walk-off wins and record-setting performances, two juggernauts remain. 

A record-setting World Baseball Classic is set for a dazzling finale Tuesday night in Miami (7 p.m. ET, FS1 and the FOX Sports app), as Japan seeks its third WBC title while Team USA faces its fiercest challenge yet in its quest to repeat as champions. 

There is no questioning the firepower or the star power in either lineup. 

Trea Turner, the No. 9 hitter on a loaded offense that features All-Stars at every position, has already set a USA record for a single WBC with four home runs. The Americans' 49 runs in the tournament are the sixth-most ever scored in a single WBC, and the lineup is finding its groove at the right time, scoring 23 runs in the quarterfinals and semifinals


The offensive outburst has been crucial for a USA rotation that is more functional than ferocious, lacking the name recognition of the superstar defenders playing behind it. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster in run prevention for Team USA, which allowed 11 runs to Mexico in its lone pool-play defeat and seven runs to Venezuela in the quarterfinals before Turner’s spectacular go-ahead grand slam sparked a comeback victory. 

"We don’t care who does what," Turner said. "We want to win."

Trea Turner crushes a three-run home run vs. Cuba, his second of the night

For the Americans to repeat as WBC champions, starter Merrill Kelly & Co. can’t afford any similar hiccups against a Japan team that outscored its pool-play opponents by 30 runs. Fortunately for first-time manager Mark DeRosa, he’ll have most of his pitching staff at his disposal. 

The WBC presents distinctive challenges to managers who must balance both tournament limits and major-league front-office requests in handling pitcher workloads. Among the WBC rules, pitchers who throw more than 50 pitches in a game can’t pitch again until a minimum of four days have passed; pitchers who throw more than 30 pitches can’t pitch the next day; and pitchers can’t pitch three consecutive days.  

"That’s been the biggest thing — how do we honor these parent clubs, get the guys the work they need, and at the same time not jeopardize us winning or losing a ballgame," DeRosa said. 

Shohei Ohtani & Japan vs. Team USA World Baseball Classic finals preview

It can create some particularly difficult situations, especially when an inning starts to avalanche the way it did for reliever Daniel Bard in a four-run frame against Venezuela. After using seven pitchers in that quarterfinal win, DeRosa told reporters he stayed up until the early morning hours before Sunday’s semifinal trying to plan out the pitching possibilities. 

Thanks to the work of Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas, who combined to allow two runs over eight innings in USA’s 14-2 semifinal win Sunday against Cuba, DeRosa won’t have to do that again before Tuesday’s finale. A litany of high-leverage weapons should be well-rested and available behind Kelly, including MLB All-Stars Devin Williams, Ryan Pressly and David Bednar. If anyone runs into trouble, the hook should be swift. 

"I think my singular focus was, how do we get our bullpen to Tuesday," DeRosa said. "And we were able to do that." 

Still, even the most formidable pitching staff would have its hands full against Japan, which has plated six runs or more in every game of the tournament. Japan demonstrated how quickly its offense can flip a game in its late-inning barrage Monday night against Mexico. 

Mexico vs. Japan highlights

And as stacked as Japan’s lineup is with MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball stars, its pitching staff is equally daunting. Roki Sasaki — a 21-year-old who struck out 173 batters in 129.1 NPB innings last season — and Pacific League MVP Yoshinobu Yamamoto took down the bulk of the work in Japan’s comeback victory against Mexico, leaving both Yu Darvish, who was the winning pitcher in the 2009 WBC final, and Shohei Ohtani available to pitch Tuesday. 

"I’ll definitely be prepared to pitch whenever," Ohtani, who threw 71 pitches in Japan’s quarterfinal win against Italy on March 16, said after Japan’s semifinal win. 

Surprisingly, though, the start will go to neither of the two. 

Instead, Team Japan announced that 29-year-old Shota Imanaga, who has made two relief appearances during the tournament, will get the start for Japan, which stormed through pool play and looked equally indomitable in its quarterfinal win against Italy

Japan hadn’t been tested until Mexico pushed it to the brink, and then it demonstrated its mettle. Eventually, the fusillade began — three runs in the seventh on WBC RBI leader Masataka Yoshida’s game-tying three-run homer, one run in the eighth and a walk-off, two-run double from NPB Triple Crown winner Munetaka Murakami in the ninth to set up a meeting with Team USA that should have baseball fans across the world glued to their televisions. 

It’s hard to imagine a more enticing matchup, particularly considering what this tournament means to USA’s foes. 

Pool B, held at the Tokyo Dome, broke records for the most fans in any round in the history of the tournament (361,976) with an average attendance of 36,198 fans. In Japan, its March 10 game against Korea was the most-watched game in the history of the WBC in any country. 

Gradually, though, the tournament is becoming more of a worldwide phenomenon. This year’s WBC drew a first-round attendance of 1,010,999 people — a 98% increase from the previous record of 510,056 fans set in 2017. More than 35,000 fans attended both semifinal matchups at loanDepot park, and the same can be expected Tuesday when two world powerhouses get set to clash with arguably their best WBC rosters ever.

For Team USA’s unheralded pitching staff, their greatest test looms. 

Here’s how both teams got here:


Pool Play

USA 6, Great Britain 2

Mexico 11, USA 5

USA 12, Canada 1 (F/7)

USA 3, Colombia 2


USA 9, Venezuela 7


USA 14, Cuba 2 


Pool Play

Japan 8, China 1

Japan 13, Korea 4

Japan 10, Czech Republic 2

Japan 7, Australia 1


Japan 9, Italy 3


Japan 6, Mexico 5

Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner. 

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