Japan advanced to the World Baseball Classic final in unbelievable fashion Monday, coming off the floor in the late innings to overcome two deficits and defeat Mexico in a tense, entertaining classic battle.
The seesaw game, won by Japan 6-5, was a highlight reel all by itself, packed with energy, twists and turns and brought to an end when Japan's best young hitter shook off his struggles and doubled in the final two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Munetaka Murakami, who last year became the country's youngest Triple Crown hitter, had been manager Hideki Kuriyama's first choice as a cleanup hitter but had done little since the end of last season, and in Japan's last two games had been replaced in the No. 4 spot by new Boston Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida.
Yoshida tied the game with a three-run seventh-inning homer, and with Japan trailing 5-4 in the ninth, walked after Shohei Ohtani led off with a double, putting Murakami on the spot with a chance to win it.
"He's much better than he has been hitting," said Yoshida, whose Orix Buffaloes have battled Murakami's Yakult Swallows in the last two Japan Series.
"All of us really know him, and I think he himself believes in himself, too."
Kuriyama said the 23-year-old slugger looked like he badly wanted to prove to the world through the WBC what he could do.
"I believe he (Murakami) had been feeling bad, but I believed in him," Kuriyama said.
Murakami admitted to self-doubt before going to the plate and considered bunting instead of swinging away. But between a fiery, energetic display after Ohtani reached second and Kuriyama telling him to give it his best shot, the youngster strengthened his resolve.
"I think he (Ohtani) gave us all the power and emotion we needed," Murakami said. "I knew it was up to me and that so many times I'd been in a position to do damage and had not."
And when he did swing away, the ball rocketed off his bat to the deepest part of Miami's loanDepot park.
"Manager Kuriyama has been coaching us since last November, and this is very important. I think he has been paying special attention to me, and I really appreciated his concern, and I was glad I was able to repay him."
Until that drive, Mexico's Randy Arozarena was poised to be the hero. After making a tremendous catch to get his glove over the left-field fence and pull back a home run ball, the dynamic, entertaining outfielder struck a pose at the fence that revved up his teammates and Mexico's loud fans.
Two more good inning-ending catches from Arozarena with the bases loaded and a big one-out eighth-inning double helped put Mexico in the driver's seat, only for Japan to battle back.
"There's just no quit in this team. There's always positive energy," Japan center fielder Lars Nootbaar said. "Everyone's always picking each other up. Whether it's a good swing or an out, people are picking each other up. I think that stuff is contagious."
Mexico manager Benji Gil, whose team came from behind to dispatch powerhouse Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals and reach the WBC semifinals for the first time, expertly summed up the game.
"We have to take our hats off to Japan," Gil said. "Neither team deserved to lose, but someone had to win. Both teams had a great performance, great pitching, and at no point in time gave up or surrendered...Japan moves on, but the world of baseball won today."