World Baseball Classic: Japan advances to final with walk-off win over Mexico

BUNKYO CITY, JAPAN - MARCH 16:   Munetaka Murakami #55 of Team Japan reacts during the 2023 World Baseball Classic Quarterfinals game between Team Italy and Team Japan at Tokyo Dome on Thursday, March 16, 2023 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Munetaka Murakami will likely be playing in MLB by 2026. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Munetaka Murakami looked lost for most of a classic World Baseball Classic semifinal against Mexico, but it took only one swing for him to become the hero of the night.

Japan topped Mexico 6-5 on Monday in Miami to advance to the final, surviving a slugfest that ended with a walk-off double by Murakami, who was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts as he walked to the plate. Shohei Ohtani started the game-winning rally with a leadoff double and was followed by a walk from Masataka Yoshida, opening the door for Murakami:

Japan will face the United States in the final Tuesday in Miami (FS1), a matchup between two of the tournament favorites.

Monday night was billed as the American debut of Japanese pitching sensation Roki Sasaki, but it wound up being so much more. That's not to say Sasaki wasn't electric; he was, starting by striking out Randy Arozarena on a 102 mph pitch to open the game.

Sasaki and Mexico starter Patrick Sandoval traded zeros, with Sandoval dominating a strong Japanese lineup. The tie was eventually broken by Mexico second baseman Luis Urías, who turned Sasaki's feared splitter into a three-run homer in the fourth inning.

Japan had several chances to match Mexico over the next few innings, but it made a critical error in tactics. It kept hitting potential extra-base hits to Arozarena, starting with a would-be homer the left fielder robbed at the bottom of the inning. He was quick to pose, which was matched by Sandoval:

The fifth and the sixth innings both saw Japan load the bases and both times have potential game-tying hits caught by Arozarena, who was feeling the moment enough that he started signing autographs during breaks in play.

Japan finally broke through in the seventh inning, when a two-out rally put two men on for Masataka Yoshida, who signed a $105 million deal with the Boston Red Sox this offseason. St. Louis Cardinals reliever JoJo Romero threw a changeup down and in that should've been nearly impossible to put in the air, but Yoshida managed to hit it to the right-field foul pole:

Mexico quickly retook the lead in the eighth inning and still had it at the start of the ninth. But Japan kept coming, eventually ending a run that saw Mexico defeat the U.S. in pool play and Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals.

Who is Munetaka Murakami, Japan's walk-off hero?

Monday will be the first time most American baseball fans have heard of Murakami, who plays for Nippon Professional Baseball's Tokyo Yakult Swallows, but MLB fans will probably hear his name much more in the near future.

In Japan, Murakami is known as the country's new home run king. The 23-year-old third baseman spent 2022 in a home run chase not unlike that of Aaron Judge's in MLB. He didn't break the NPB record of 60 homers set by Wladimir Balentien in 2013, but he did hit 56 homers to surpass Sadaharu Oh’s long-standing mark of 55 for most among Japanese players.

Murakami finished the season hitting .318/.458/.711 with 134 RBIs.

That campaign earned him a second straight Central League MVP award and a three-year extension from the Swallows, with the requirement that the team must post him after the 2025 season. Murakami figures to still be in his prime when he hits MLB and could be the next great Japanese player to reach the league.