MIAMI — Over a span of eight scintillating minutes Monday night, the second semifinal game of the World Baseball Classic became a showcase for what the Red Sox could be this season.
With Japan down by three runs and desperate for a big hit in the seventh inning, Masataka Yoshida golfed a low changeup down the line in right field for a three-run home run that sent his teammates tumbling out of the dugout in joy.
“Somehow I got my bat under the ball,” he said. “I’m glad I was able to hit it out.”
Mexico, which had played brilliantly all night, got a one-out double from Randy Arozarena in the top of the eighth. Alex Verdugo, mired in a tournament-long slump, jumped on the first pitch he saw and lined a high fastball to the gap in left field for an RBI double to regain the lead for Mexico.
Verdugo pounded his chest and pointed to the dugout. Finally, a big hit as he represented his father’s homeland.
A third Red Sox player, Jarren Duran, pinch ran for Verdugo and scored an insurance run.
But it wasn’t enough as Japan stormed back for a thrilling 6-5 victory on Munetaka Murakami’s two-run double in the bottom of the ninth in front of a frenetic flag-waving crowd of 35,933 at loanDepot Park.
Yoshida came up again in the ninth and drew a five-pitch walk after Shohei Ohtani’s leadoff double. Reliever Giovanny Gallegos wanted nothing to do with him.
Murakami, one of Japan’s best hitters, ended a slump with a double off the wall in center. Pinch runner Ukyo Shuto slid across with the winning run to end a thrilling game.
The championship game will be Tuesday night (7 p.m., FS1) with the United States facing Japan.
“I think we can prove how good the Japanese baseball world is in the world,” said Yoshida, who was 3 for 4 with a walk. The new Red Sox left fielder is 9 of 19 in the tournament with three extra-base hits and a record 13 RBIs.
Yoshida also made an important defensive play to end the seventh inning, throwing out Joey Meneses at the plate from shallow left field to keep Mexico from adding to its lead.
Verdugo was 1 for 4. The double was his first extra-base hit of the tournament.
Prior to the game, Verdugo popped out of the Mexico dugout early to watch Japan take batting practice.
As a 21-year-old, he was a part-time player for Mexico in the 2017 WBC. This time around he has fully embraced the experience.
“It’s such a different thing,” he said. “All that matters is winning. It doesn’t matter how your individual stats are. It’s all about advancing and finding a way to win. That’s what we’ve been doing.”
The only frustration was his lack of success at the plate. Verdugo was 2 for 19 over the first six games.
“I need to make better quality contact,” he said. “I’m missing the barrel or getting jammed. My swing has been off. I’ve felt good but I need to clean up a few things and get some things addressed. I need to figure it out.”
Verdugo received a message from Red Sox hitting coach Pete Fatse before the game offering a few thoughts. His struggles aside, Verdugo felt the WBC was preparing him for the coming season.
“Absolutely,” he said. “These games are 100 percent more intense than a regular spring training games.”
The WBC has been a stage for Yoshida. The 29-year-old has been arguably the best hitter in the tournament, showing an uncanny ability to not only get his bat to the ball but to hit with power in clutch situations.
Japan center fielder Lars Nootbaar didn’t know much about Yoshida before the tournament and has been impressed.
“He’s really disciplined at the plate. That’s something that stood out to me,” the Cardinals outfielder said.
“He wasn’t getting hits in the first couple exhibition games, but you could see that confidence in him and how he just controlled the [strike] zone, didn’t get rattled or anything like that.
“I think as a hitter that’s super important to be able to maintain that strike zone discipline when things aren’t going well. He does such a great job of that. I think the sky’s the limit for him. He’s just a professional hitter and you could see right it away.”
Sox manager Alex Cora has said Yoshida could open the season batting cleanup. All those RBIs in the WBC might make that an easy decision.
Facing a tough lefty in Mexico’s Patrick Sandoval, Yoshida lined a two-strike sinker into left field for a single in the second inning. Facing Sandoval again in the fourth inning, he drilled a two-strike slider to left field for a single.
“He’s going to hit,” Nootbaar said. “He’s got a great approach.”
In the eventful seventh inning, Yoshida came up with runners on first and second after Ohtani walked with two outs. Lefthander JoJo Romero, who plays for the Cardinals, had the count 2-2 and threw a changeup low and inside.
“I know my hand was a little shivering,” Yoshida said. “But it was good contact. I stepped into the box with a belief in myself.”
Yoshida had the strength to drive the ball 366 feet down the line. It would have been a homer at Fenway Park, too.