Team USA faces rematch with Puerto Rico in first trip to WBC final

LOS ANGELES -- The United States earned a trip to its first World Baseball Classic championship game when the host team held off Japan 2-1 in Tuesday’s semifinal.

The United States will face Puerto Rico in the winner-take-all final on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium.

In three previous WBC tournaments, the United States had advanced to the semifinals just once, when it lost to Japan 9-4 in 2009. Revenge proved difficult to achieve Tuesday, but Team USA prevailed, thanks to some unexpected defensive miscues from Team Japan.

Many members of Team USA stressed the need for a well-played game against the fundamentally sound Japan team. But a fourth-inning error from Japan second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi led to the United States’ first run on an Andrew McCutchen single.

With drums and horns serenading Japan’s every move on offense, Kikuchi redeemed himself in the sixth inning with a game-tying home run off reliever Nate Jones.

The United States took the lead in the eighth inning on an Adam Jones groundout that was bobbled by Japan third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda. The brief misplay allowed Brandon Crawford to score from third base. Crawford had singled and moved to third on an Ian Kinsler double.

“It means a heckuva lot,” McCutchen said when asked if never having made the title game had been a burden on Team USA. “We have a great group of guys on this team who have dedicated this time to be able to try and win some ballgames. A sacrifice had to be made. There are no egos when that door opens, and that is what is good about this team.

“Everybody is a superstar, everybody is a three-hole hitter, but somebody has to hit seventh, somebody has to hit eighth. There are no egos, even with the pitching. That is first and foremost what has allowed this team to get this far.”

In his first start of the WBC, Team USA’s Tanner Roark held Japan scoreless over the first four innings and gave up just two hits. Despite the game's being played in Los Angeles, the United States was the visiting team, with Luke Gregerson closing out the victory in the bottom of the ninth inning.

As tough as Japan was to overcome Tuesday, the United States will face another major challenger in Puerto Rico, a team that is 7-0 in this tournament. Puerto Rico defeated the United States 6-5 in a second-round game Friday in San Diego.

The United States is scheduled to send right-hander Marcus Stroman to the mound in the title game. Stroman has a 3.86 ERA in his two previous WBC starts. Puerto Rico will counter with Seth Lugo, who has won both of his starts in this tournament. Lugo has allowed just three runs in 11 WBC innings.

Three things to know:

1. United States starter Roark was electric Tuesday, even though he had pitched just 1 1/3 innings in the WBC -- in a relief appearance. The Washington Nationals pitcher was in sync against Japan. He said he prepared himself with a couple of bullpen sessions since his Team USA outing 10 days prior.

Roark gave up just two hits in his four innings of work, and he allowed a walk and recorded a strikeout. He kept Japan off-balance for most of his 48 pitches, as nearly all of his outing came during light rain.

Why just 48 pitches, when 95 is the limit for this round? Roark admitted he was on a 50-pitch limit.

“I haven’t faced live hitters in nine days or so, so they brought the pitch count down a little bit,” he said. “I felt good to stay out there, but you know … yeah.”

The outing continued a strong run of starting pitching for Team USA. In seven games of the tournament, the starters have combined for a 1.50 ERA.

Roark even managed some self-preservation, as a hard line drive from Japan’s Shogo Akiyama in the third inning appeared to connect perfectly with Roark’s glove.

2. The pitchers’ duel Tuesday was nothing like the previous time Team Japan and Team USA met in a WBC semifinal. In a game at Dodger Stadium on March 22, 2009, the teams not only combined for 13 runs but also made four errors, with the United States making three.

Jimmy Rollins had four hits for the United States that day, and Mark DeRosa drove in two runs. Brian Roberts hit a home run.

Japan pounded out 10 hits in earning a berth in the championship game. It went on to win the WBC title with a victory over South Korea the next day. Ichiro Suzuki, Norichika Aoki, Kosuke Fukudome, Kenji Johjima and Munenori Kawasaki played for Team Japan in that semifinal against the United States. Daisuke Matsuzaka was the starting pitcher, and Yu Darvish pitched one inning of relief.

3. Jonathan Lucroy is expected to be the starting catcher for the United States on Wednesday -- not Buster Posey. The move surprised some, considering Posey has helped the San Francisco Giants to three World Series titles and Wednesday’s game is for a championship, after all.

But U.S. manager Jim Leyland always planned to rotate his catchers, and Wednesday is Lucroy’s turn to start behind the plate. Posey started in the semifinal Tuesday.

“I would really feel bad if somebody thought we weren't trying to win because we were catching Jonathan Lucroy,” Leyland said. “This guy's a good player. He's a real good player. If there's anybody in the United States right now that doesn't think we're trying to win this thing and putting what we feel is the best team out there each and every day, then they really haven't been following it like they should.”

Leyland said he should have given more playing time to guys such as Alex Bregman, Josh Harrison and Daniel Murphy, but he felt confident about the way he handled his catchers.

“As far as the catching, that's a no-brainer,” Leyland said. “I would like to think that anybody that's a baseball fan would understand the way we're handling the catching. We think it's the proper way to do it.”