Team USA is set to meet Japan in the finals of the 2023 World Baseball Classic on Tuesday night. It's one game with WBC supremacy hanging in the balance. For the Americans, they have chance to become the first repeat WBC winners since Japan took the first two tournaments in 2006 and 2009. For Japan – the only nation to win multiple WBCs – they'll aiming to claim the belt and title for the third time in five tournaments.
In terms of the specific matchup, it's compelling clash of strengths. Japan boasts the most dominant pitching staff of this year's WBC, and the Team USA lineup is unparalleled this time around. So what's needed in order for the U.S. to defend its championship and join Japan as two-time WBC winners? That's the central matter going into Tuesday night's high-stakes tilt, and that's what we're here to explore. Let's do just that, from the U.S. perspective.
1. Get strong (very) early innings from Merrill Kelly
There's little doubt that the rotation is the soft underbelly of the U.S. squadron. Look no further than the fact that the right-hander Kelly, who's never made an All-Star team and who didn't make his MLB debut until age 30, is getting the start in the title game. That said, Kelly is a quality moundsman. Across parts of four major-league seasons with the Diamondbacks, Kelly has pitched to a 109 ERA+ and 3.01 K/BB ratio over 97 starts. Last season, he registered a 3.37 ERA/119 ERA+ in an NL-leading 33 starts, and he was one of the few pitchers to top 200 innings. He doesn't have a big fastball, but Kelly does boast an overstuffed five-pitch repertoire. He keeps hitters in a state of uncertainty by throwing his go-to pitch – the fastball – just 30 percent of the time.
Kelly's first and only start in this WBC, against Colombia on March 15, was a mixed bag. In three innings of work, Kelly allowed two runs on four hits with one strikeout and two walks. Of his 61 pitches, 36 went for strikes. The Japan offense profiles as superior to that of Colombia's, so Kelly will no doubt be challenged. Against Colombia, Kelly faced 15 batters, and manager Mark DeRosa should seek to reduce that number on Tuesday night. Ideally, Kelly will go through the opposing order only one time, as hitters tend to benefit with increasing exposure and familiarity with a starting pitcher during a given start. The state of the U.S. bullpen makes that a viable strategy.
2. Take full advantage of the rested bullpen
The U.S. has an impressive corps of relievers like – in no particular order – Devin Williams, David Bednar, Ryan Pressly, Adam Ottavino, Jason Adam, and Kendall Graveman. Across a larger sample, that's a lot of bat-missing and run-prevention capabilities. As well, the U.S. bullpen comes into the final quite rested.
While Japan was prevailing in a tense, white-knuckled contest on Monday night in Miami, Team USA was resting. As well, the U.S.'s 14-2 semifinal win over Cuba on Sunday was as low-stress as the final tally suggests. Miles Mikolas, a starter under normal circumstances, hefted four innings in relief, and only one true reliever – lefty Aaron Loup – appeared at all. Loup threw just six pitches. The core U.S. relievers haven't pitched since Saturday against Venezuela, and none was worked particularly hard. Williams, at 19 pitches, threw the most of any U.S. reliever in that quarterfinal win.
At this point, it's on DeRosa to be aggressive with his hook of Kelly. Said hook must be preemptive in nature – i.e., go and get your starter before the first signs of trouble, not after. Again, given the deep and rested U.S. pen and Merrill's limitations as a pitcher, there's no reason he should be allowed to face the Japan order more than once.
3. Jump on the lefty starter
Japan will start left-hander Shōta Imanaga. While the 29-year-old Imanaga is an accomplished hurler in Japan – he boasts a 3.01 ERA and 3.69 K/BB ratio in parts of seven seasons with Yokahama – he's not Ohtani or Roki Sasaki. Perhaps better still from the U.S. standpoint, he's a southpaw.
Consider, if you will, the lineup that DeRosa trotted out against Cuba left-hander Roenis Elías on Sunday:
- Mookie Betts, RF
- Mike Trout, CF
- Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
- Nolan Arenado, 3B
- Kyle Schwarber, LF
- Will Smith, C
- Pete Alonso, DH
- Tim Anderson, 2B
- Trea Turner, SS
That particular cup of course runneth over with All-Stars, and also of note is that there's only one platoon-disadvantaged batsman to be found – reigning NL home run champ Kyle Schwarber. Asking a lefty starter to navigate a lineup that includes the right-handed likes of Betts, Trout, Goldschmidt, Arenado, Smith, Alonso, Anderson, and WBC hero-to-date Turner is, suffice it to say, a request that borders on "criminally unreasonable."
As such, it's key that all those right-handed bats jump on Imanaga early before Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama has a chance to get the ball to one of his right-handed relievers (Shohei Ohtani perchance?) and flip the platoon advantage.
By now you may have figured that "early" figures to matter quite a bit in this one. The U.S. needs to hang runs on Imanaga early, and on a similar timeline the cowhide needs to be presented to the U.S. bullpen.