Struggling Japanese slugger Munetaka Murakami smashed a two-run sayonara double to complete a 6-5 comeback against Mexico in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic in Miami on Monday.
Winner of the first two WBCs, Japan advances to Tuesday's final in Miami against defending champion the United States.
With Japan down 5-4 in a game the Samurai had never led, St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Giovanny Gallegos started the bottom of the ninth inning looking to close out the game and send Mexico into its first final. He first had to contend with Los Angeles Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani, who hit a double, then pitched carefully to red-hot Boston Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida, who walked. Earlier in the game, Yoshida had hit a game-tying three-run homer.
Next up was Tokyo Yakult Swallows third baseman Murakami, the youngest Triple Crown winner in Nippon Professional Baseball last year. He had gone 0 for 4 with three strikeouts in the game and has no home runs in the tournament. Each time he had struck out against Mexico came with a runner on base.
The 23-year-old finally showed his ability with pinch-runner Ukyo Shuto on first and Ohtani on second and nobody out. On a 1-1 count, Murakami drove a fastball to center field that hit the fence, driving in both runners with the game-ending double as the Japan team poured out of the dugout to celebrate.
Murakami hugged his teammates as they shared the joy of making it to the final.
"I struck out a lot and was frustrated," he said in an on-field interview after the game. "This was a win for the whole team. I'm glad we were able to live up to expectations."
Asked about Tuesday's final against the United States, Murakami said, "I want to enjoy myself to the fullest tomorrow and make the best of the final."
At the very moment that Japan completed its stirring comeback in Miami against Mexico, a buzz swept through Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, where another baseball game was being played.
During the ongoing National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament, a school from Kyoto Prefecture was facing off against a school from Nagasaki Prefecture on Tuesday morning.
When Murakami hit the game-ending double with no outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to send Samurai Japan into the final, cheers and roars erupted from the stands at Koshien.
An office worker from Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture, was struggling to decide whether to cheer for the Kyoto team or watch the WBC live but ended up coming to Koshien.
He instead asked his wife to inform him of the course of the WBC semifinal over the phone. Learning about Japan's sayonara victory, the man ecstatically high-fived people around him.
"I was surrounded by baseball lovers and shared the joy with them," he said. "In that sense as well, I'm glad I came to Koshien."
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