Team USA did its part Sunday night, defeating Cuba in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic at Miami’s LoanDepot Park, 14-2. The Americans will try to defend their 2017 title in Tuesday night’s final game against the winner of Monday’s other semifinal between Japan and Mexico.
“It’s a great feeling, man, I’m so proud to be out here,” Adam Wainwright, the U.S. starting pitcher for Sunday’s win in front of 35,779 highly energetic fans, said. “That’s as wild an environment as I’ve ever pitched in, the wildest environment. I mean, the fans were going crazy the entire time.”
Team USA pounded out 14 hits against the Cubans, including two more homers off the bat of Trea Turner and others from Paul Goldschmidt and Cedric Mullin. Turner leads the tournament with four homers overall.
The Cuban federation for the first time allowed a pair of Major Leaguers on the roster—Luis Robert and Yoan Moncada, both Chicago White Sox—but the team was overmatched by the U.S., which has an MLB All-Star at virtually every position.
Historically, Cuba once dominated international play, having won the baseball gold medal in three out of the first four Summer Olympics that included the sport. The lone exception was at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where the U.S. won its only baseball gold medal, defeating the Cubans, 4-0.
Cuba failed to even qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021; that year, the U.S. team, made up of minor leaguers and retreads, claimed the silver, losing the gold medal game to a squad of Japanese plucked from the ranks of Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s major league.
In this year’s WBC, the Cubans opened pool play 0-2. All five teams in Pool A finished 2-2 and Cuba survived by virtue of an excellent runs allowed to total outs ratio. The Cubans traveled to Tokyo where they defeated Australia in a quarterfinal match, reaching the WBC semifinals for the first time since the inaugural 2006 tournament.
The U.S. struggled to emerge from Pool C, but since advancing to the elimination round, they have been on a hitting streak, scoring 23 runs on 29 hits with five homers. That includes Turner’s game-winning eighth inning grand slam that defeated Venezuela, 9-7, in Saturday night’s quarterfinal.
“I usually don’t hit very well here, but I’ll take it,” Turner said. “These last few days have been fun for me.”
Ditto for Team USA third baseman Nolan Arenado, who left the semifinal game when he was hit on the right hand by a pitch – an X-ray was negative for a broken bone. He believes all of baseball is watching the tournament, “and probably in awe of it.”
“There’s probably plenty of players who wish they could play,” Arenado said. “There’s no reason why all the stars of our game should not be playing and pitching in this, representing our country.
“This really is a great tournament.”
The final will be a great matchup no matter who wins the second semifinal. The Japanese could bring the glamour of Angels’ teammates Shohei Ohtani for Japan and Mike Trout of the U.S. facing each other with all the international stakes on the line. Japan, which won the first two WBC tournaments, is 5-0 this year, having outscored their opponents, 47-9.
Mexico is the only team in this tournament to defeat the 5-1 Americans, handing them a decisive 11-5 drubbing at Chase Field in Phoenix last week during Pool C play. The Mexicans have never lasted this long in this tournament.
“Mexico’s tough, they are. They have good pitching, and they can hit a little bit,” Arenado said.
Japan will send sensation Roki Sasaki to start against Mexico’s Patrick Sandoval, who defeated the U.S. in pool play. If Japan wins, veteran Yu Darvish is pegged to start against the U.S. Darvish finished up the game vs. Korea that won Japan the 2009 WBC title.
It’s the first time Sasaki, who pitches for Chiba Lotte in Japan’s baseball league, will receive some notice outside his own country.
“Of course, it’s nice to be seen,” Sasaki said. “But I want the team to win. That’s my hope. In order for that to happen I have to give my best performance. We’re here to win the championship so of course I’ll do my best to win the next game.”
Merrill Kelly is next up to start for the U.S., although manager Mark DeRosa didn’t exactly commit to it.
“Yeah, we’re going to sit down and discuss starters,” he said after the U.S. won its semifinal. “Obviously, it looks like it’s Merrill Kelly’s day. We’ll discuss that a little bit more.”
The worldwide coverage certainly favors a finale against the Japanese. A March 10 pool play game between Japan and Korea had a 44.4 television rating, the highest of any single game in WBC history, Major League Baseball reported. A U.S.-Japan finale could double that, entering a viewership of Super Bowl proportions.
The tournament has already been a rousing success with the first round drawing 1,010,999 to the four venues in Asia and the U.S. Two quarterfinal games drew 76,784 in Tokyo Dome. Meanwhile the five games in Miami have been sold out with the quarterfinals and first semi already adding 107,388.
The U.S.-Mexico game alone on March 12 at Chase Field in Phoenix sold out at 47,534.
With four Latin teams among the final six—Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Venezuela—the fan attention has been raucous.
“We’re excited. We love playing in front of these fans,” Arenado said. “We love a packed house. That’s what makes this tournament great. We want it to be packed. We don’t want to play to an empty ballpark. We definitely want it packed and loud, and that’s what we expect.”
The final two games will bring more of the same.