2023 World Baseball Classic Champions: Japan’s spotless tournament is one for the ages


Design by Elisabeth Lee

Japan steamrolled their way to a World Baseball Classic title by going undefeated in pool and knockout stages.

Avery Rosas, Sports Editor

On the night of March 21, 2023, a day shy of exactly 6 years since the last World Baseball Classic final, Japan defeated the United States of America by a score of 3-2 for what is now their third WBC title in 5 tournaments.

Japan’s dominance was front and center throughout the entire tournament, going a sparkling 4-0 in pool play and 3-0 in the knockout stage. The United States looked shaky in pool play but showed what their true potential was in a baffling 9-7 quarterfinals victory against Venezuela and an even more stunning 14-2 win in the semifinals.

Italy was no problem for a victorious Japan team, whose dominance was challenged by a surprisingly powerful and undeniably electric Mexico team, who until the final inning of the semifinal against Japan, had been leading them all game; a walkoff by Munetaka Murakami capped a 6-5 win to advance his team to the finals. If people didn’t know about Mexico’s baseball dominance beforehand, they’ll be more cautious for the next tournament in 2026.


Although it was expected to be San Diego Padres starter Yu Darvish for the Japanese national team in the final game, left-hander Shota Imanaga ended up getting the start in his place. After a pop-up double behind first base put a runner on second with one out, Imanaga escaped the inning with no runs allowed to get the game started.

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly was set to face off against Japan for the US and worked around a walk to Los Angeles Angels superstar designated hitter and starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani by getting Masataka Yoshida to strike out looking on a fastball down and away.

With one down in the top of the second inning, new Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Trea Turner hooked a fastball into the left field bleachers to get the United States on the board first. Turner had been on a tear in his last 2 games with 3 home runs in just the 2 games prior, putting his homer total to an astounding 5 in 8 games. The US would get 2 more hits before ending the inning with just the one run scored.

Now with a lead, Kelly wanted a shutdown inning to keep the momentum going. In his first pitch to start the bottom of the second, he… served up a monster blast to Munetaka Murakami to tie the game. Not ideal for a United States team that would find themselves with the bases loaded and only one out, prompting an early hook from USA manager Mark DeRosa. Aaron Loup would come in to face the top of Japan’s order, allowing a groundout to score a run and a flyout to center to be the only damage done.

The next 2 innings for the US would be some to forget, with a couple walks from Japan’s next pitcher Shosei Togo giving the US a chance to score in the third but nothing coming of it; they went down in order in the fourth. Colorado Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland would come in to relieve Loup and would retire the side in order in the third before allowing a home run to Kazuma Okamoto to extend Japan’s lead to 3-1. This would end up being the deciding run in the game.

For the three innings that would follow, efforts were exchanged from both sides but nothing came of it. Tampa Bay Rays reliever Jason Adam loaded the bases but escaped the inning by himself, keeping the US within scoring distance. 

Yu Darvish, who was expected to start, would eventually get the ball in the 8th inning as an all-out effort by Japan to lock down the game. After getting St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado to fly out to center, Darvish would find himself in a 10-pitch battle with Philadelphia Phillies left fielder and designated hitter Kyle Schwarber, resulting in a mammoth home run that would bring the United States to within a run from tying it. His teammate Trea Turner would follow the blast with a flare behind second base to put a runner on first, but Darvish would work around it and leave with a lead cut in half.

Milwaukee Brewers closer Devin Williams, one-of if not the best reliever on the United States team, was put in the game to keep the deficit right where it stood. From behind Baltimore Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins, who was in left field for this game, the resonating pop of a glove from the home bullpen forced a reluctant glance. 

Shohei Ohtani, who had a hit in 3 at-bats in the lineup today, was warming up in the bullpen. The man who threw 100 mph fastballs and the most devastating slider/splitter combo in the world, who hit baseballs harder than almost everyone in the world, and who ran faster than almost everyone in the world – the face of Japan, and now the face of baseball, had the ninth inning to himself.

Williams would get out of the inning with a walk and two strikeouts, hoping his momentum would carry to his hitters in the top of the ninth. Guaranteed to bat in the ninth were New York Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil, Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts… and Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout. Yes, my friend, the best hitter in the world would get a chance to face his teammate Shohei Ohtani in the ninth inning. 

Having had his last relief appearance in 2016 when he was still in Japan, Ohtani would have to adjust quickly to the circumstance he had put himself in. With his entire country, nay, the entire world with eyes on him, no one else was more prepared to end this game.

McNeil’s elite eye earned him a walk to start the inning, taking a 250 mile per hour fastball that missed the bottom of the zone by approximately 0.01 inches to get to first base. On a side note, hyperbole is a fantastic concept, and the only way to speak about Shohei Ohtani.

It didn’t seem like it would get any easier with Mookie Betts coming up to the plate, but apparently it was just that. After a called strike on a fastball, Betts grounded into a picture perfect 4-6-3 double play to give Ohtani two outs on one pitch. With a victory within arms distance, all he had to do now was retire his teammate and 2nd best player in the world, Michael Nelson Trout. 

Ohtani fell down 1-0 after a sweeping slider missed away. He would follow that by throwing a 100 mile per hour fastball down the same tunnel as the previous slider, ending up down the middle yet slinging it right past Trout. Another 100 mph fastball missed away to put Trout back in the driver’s seat with a 2-1 count before Ohtani went right back to the same pitch; this time, a pitch that was as center-cut as you’ll ever see, but fast enough to pump past the righty at the plate. After pulling a 102 mph heater in the dirt to fill the count, Ohtani was either about to end the game or give the crown an anticlimactic finish to the at-bat. 

Shohei Ohtani is not anticlimactic. A long pause on the mound filled the stiff, anxious silence from a standing audience in Loan Depot Park, all of whom had borne witness to a show that more than satisfied the price of admission. The final sentence of a storybook ending finished with a sweeping slider, perfectly spotted on the outside edge, spinning vehemently and meticulously around Mike Trout’s bat to end the game.

Despite the subject of the last few paragraphs, everyone involved for Japan was immensely involved in their success, one that allowed them to go undefeated throughout the tournament. The concentration of talent and excitement in the 2023 World Baseball Classic was unmatched at every single level in the history of baseball, and the subsequent fan response was more than appropriate. Viewership more than doubled from the last World Baseball Classic in 2017, and certain games saw more than 60% if not more than 90% of televisions in certain countries tuning in to watch the tournament. The exposure and growth of baseball at the international level is one that is only matched by the likes of soccer, the largest sport in the world, and this growth will only continue if players continue to represent their countries as they’ve done so far.

Japan has once again proved themselves to be the kings of international baseball, and they’ve done so while maintaining the utmost respect for their opponent and their fans. If any team were to deserve the recognition and success to go along with their outrageous talent, it would be team Japan, the international champions of baseball in 2023.