LOS ANGELES — Luke Gregerson’s final strike breezed past Nobuhiro Matsuda, and the rain-drenched American players celebrated on the field while a soaked crowd roared through the evening mist.
A daylong downpour couldn’t dampen this resilient United States club or its fans, who will finally get to root for the home team in a World Baseball Classic championship game.
Brandon Crawford scored the tiebreaking run when Matsuda bobbled Adam Jones’ grounder to third in the eighth inning, and the United States reached the WBC final 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 edged the Netherlands 4-3 in 11 innings Monday.
“It means a heck of a lot,” said McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates slugger. “We’ve got a great group of guys on this team who have dedicated this time to be able to try and win some ballgames. Sacrifices had to be made, and there are no egos when that door opens. That’s what’s good about this team. Everybody is a superstar on this team. There are no egos.”
The World Baseball Classic final has been played in the United States in each of its four editions, but the home team had never been able to play America’s pastime on what has become its biggest international stage. The U.S. only reached the semifinals once before, in 2009.
While manager Jim Leyland’s current roster is missing Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout and many other American superstars, the All-Star-laden group that decided to participate has won two straight elimination games to earn a chance for the U.S.’ first crown.
“Coming into this event, I didn’t really want to talk about the fact that the United States has never won it (and) they’ve never gone to the finals,” Leyland said. “I didn’t think that was a big deal. I wanted this, for the players, to be a memory. I’ve talked a lot about it. Make a memory. Hopefully it’s a real good one, regardless of the results (Wednesday). I know it is for me. It’s been an absolute honor.”
To reach the final, the Americans had to persevere through an uncharacteristic Los Angeles rain that drenched the playing field several hours before game time. They also had to beat a gifted Japanese team at its own game: pitching, defense and small ball.
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.