Japan came from behind twice to defeat Mexico 6-5 on Monday and set up a World Baseball Classic final showdown with the United States.
Munetaka Murakami drove in a walk-off two-run double in the bottom of the ninth inning after Japan superstar Shohei Ohtani launched a late rally that capped a thrilling duel at Miami’s LoanDepot Park.
Japan, who trailed 3-0 and 5-3 during Monday’s semi, now advance to a mouthwatering final against the star-studded USA in Miami on Tuesday.
Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said after the win he had always believed in his players to dig themselves out of trouble.
“I know the more important the game it is, I think the last players become the more critical,” Kuriyama said of the ninth inning rally.
“I always believed there’s always the chance at the end, no matter how the game plays out.”
Mexico counterpart Benji Gil meanwhile saluted the Japanese.
“We have to take off our hats to the Japanese team,” Gil said.
“Neither team deserved to lose, but someone had to win. Both teams had a great performance. I think that Japan moves on, but the world of baseball won today.”
Japan are chasing a record third World Baseball Classic crown after winning the tournament in 2006 and 2009.
The Asian powerhouses have been the most consistent side in this year’s tournament, averaging more than nine runs per game en route to Monday’s semi-final.
But for extended periods it looked as if Mexico were ready to score an upset.
A superb pitching performance from the Los Angeles Angels’ Patrick Sandoval stymied Japan’s vaunted offensive power through the first four innings.
Mexico meanwhile broke the game wide open in the fourth.
After bagging two outs, Japan prodigy Roki Sasaki gave up singles to Rowdy Tellez and Isaac Paredes on successive pitches before Luis Urias blasted a homer to left centerfield to put Mexico ahead 3-0.
The Houston Astros’ Jose Urquidy replaced Sandoval in the fifth and navigated a bases-loaded jam to keep Japan scoreless.
Urquidy emerged unscathed from another bases-loaded situation in the sixth to frustrate Japan again.
But Mexico’s resistance finally broke in the bottom of the seventh.
Boston Red Sox new signing Masataka Yoshida smashed a three-run shot to tie it up at 3-3 and Japan were back in it.
Yet Mexico responded well to start the eighth. Randy Arozarena doubled to lead off and then scored when Alex Verdugo doubled.
A Paredes single put Mexico up 5-3 and Japan were again chasing the game.
Hotaka Yamakawa’s sac-fly to left field scored Takumu Nakano to trim the deficit to 5-4 heading to the ninth.
After Mexico went scoreless in the top of the inning it was left to Japan’s golden boy Ohtani to start the fightback.
Ohtani doubled off Giovanny Gallegos to keep Japan alive and then the pressure piled on the Mexican pitcher as Yoshida walked and was replaced by pinch-runner Ukyo Shuto.
Murakami then stepped up to crush a double to centerfield, and Ohtani and Shuto sprinted home for a stunning walk off win.