62 million. That’s the approximate number of Japanese television viewers who watched the World Baseball Classic (WBC) matchup between Samurai Japan and the Korean National Baseball team on March 10. By comparison, the 2022 NBA Finals and World Series attracted an average of 12.4 and 12 million viewers, respectively.
Baseball has never been more ubiquitous on an international scale. From San Juan, Puerto Rico to Taipei, Taiwan, millions of baseball fans marked their calendars to watch the best players in the world represent their nations in the 2023 WBC, which proved to be a tournament for the ages.
Now that the infield dust has settled, it’s worth taking a moment to rank the greatest highlights of the 2023 WBC.
- An unlikely Czech Republic national team bursts onto the scene:
Most Americans don’t envision professional baseball players working as firefighters, sales managers and high school geography teachers in their spare time. Yet this year’s Czech Republic national baseball team consisted of players who also had to keep their day jobs.
Many Czech players had competed for fun in the Czech Baseball Extraliga before joining the national team. After a stunning victory over Spain in the qualifiers, the Czech Republic headed to the WBC for the first time, where they shocked the world by beating China 8-5 and scoring three runs each in losses to Korea and Australia.
- Cuba national team makes a deep run after allowing MLB players to participate for the first time:
For the first time in the history of the World Baseball Classic, Cuban-born MLB players were allowed to play for the Cuban national team. Current Chicago White Sox stars Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert bolstered a Cuban roster composed of various minor leaguers and former two-time Major League Baseball all-star Yoenis Céspedes.
The new and improved Cuban roster made quick work of Taiwan, Panama and Australia in the quarterfinals before losing 2-12 to an overpowering Team USA in the semifinals. Cuba’s run proved there is still a glimmer of hope for sports to transcend political conflicts across the globe.
- Yu Chang leads Taiwan in front of an electric crowd:
In just four games, Chang posted eight RBIs and a 1.438 OPS. In the bottom of the second inning against an experienced Netherlands team, he bombed a 410 feet grand slam to give Taiwan the 5-1 lead they never relinquished. One night earlier, he had sparked Taiwan’s comeback against Italy with a two-run homer to tie the game in the bottom of the sixth.
All this came in front of an electric Taiwanese crowd at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium. Even down 7-0 late to Cuba in what would be Taiwan’s final game, an emphatic crowd of Taiwanese fans roared with approval as Chang drove in the team’s lone run.
- Puerto Rico knocks out the Dominican Republic’s all-star team in stunning fashion but suffers fatal injury:
In its final game of Pool D play, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic faced each other in an elimination game. Led by Javier Báez, or “El Mago,” and all-star Francisco Lindor, Puerto Rico sparkled against Israel, Nicaragua and Venezuela before jumping onto the board early against the DR.
The Dominican Republic’s star-studded roster, headlined by Manny Machado, Juan Soto and Julio Rodríguez, failed to consistently put runs on the board, as it lost 5-2. In front of a sold-out LoanDepot Park filled with proud Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, Edwin Diaz took the mound to close out the game. Three strikeouts later, the Puerto Ricans roared and the celebration began.
Unfortunately, the celebration quickly became bittersweet. Diaz tore the patellar tendon in his right knee as he leapt for joy and will likely miss the 2023 MLB season.
- Trea Turner’s grand slam to send USA past a blazing Venezuela team:
Top of the eighth, with the United States down two runs, the bases loaded and zero outs, Venezuelan pitcher David Peralta turned and watched as Turner’s missile of a home run soared over the left field wall. In the blink of an eye, the USA had flipped a 5-7 deficit into a 9-7 lead.
Beyond sending the USA to the semifinals, Turner’s hot streak had burned throughout the tournament, as he led all players in home runs with five and had 11 RBIs to show for it.
Venezuela deserves its flowers nevertheless, as it had arrived in the quarterfinals undefeated after beating both Puerto Rico and tournament favorite Dominican Republic.
- Samurai Japan ends Mexico and Arozarena’s cinderella run with iconic walk off:
“Sayonara! Sayonara,” the Japanese commentators yelled as Shohei Ohtani and Ukyo Shuto flew across home plate after a monster double from two-time Nippon Professional Baseball MVP Munetaka Murakami. Sayonara — “goodbye” in English — is Japanese baseball slang for a walk-off.
Samurai Japan’s thrilling 6-5 win ended an incredible Mexico run led by Cuban-born Randy Arozarena. Arozarena recently became a Mexican citizen so he could represent the country that accepted him after he left Cuba in order to provide for his family.
Throughout the classic, Arozarena led Mexico past the likes of the USA and Puerto Rico with a string of run-saving catches and by posting a staggering slash line of .450/.607/.900 (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage).
After Samurai Japan stunned Mexico, fans could only hope and wonder: Would Shohei Ohtani face Mike Trout in the championship bout against the USA? The baseball world was in for a treat.
- Ohtani takes Ichiro Suzuki’s place as the new captain of Japan:
Stephen Curry versus Lebron James, Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes, Novak Djokovic versus Rafael Nadal — these are the types of championship matchups that draw fans to watch the sports they love.
On Tuesday night, we got to see a matchup between two of the greatest baseball talents to ever grace the diamond in an at-bat that the world will remember for years to come.
Following a towering Kyle Schwarber home run which cut Samurai Japan’s lead to one, Team USA smelled blood in the top of the eighth. Japan left it up to Ohtani to close out the game in the ninth. Two outs in, he found himself facing his Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout for the first time in his career.
After three balls and two 100 mph fastball swinging strikes, Ohtani threw one of the most beautiful sliders the sport has ever seen. It hung in the zone at 87 mph and bent left just as Trout’s bat whiffed for the game-winning punch.
For Japanese fans, Ohtani’s game-winning strikeout is rivaled only by Ichiro Suzuki’s 10th inning, two-run single to win the 2009 WBC championship. After this year’s iconic 3-2 victory over the USA, Ohtani has now cemented himself as the new captain of Samurai Japan, replacing the great Suzuki, who led the team to back-to-back WBC titles in 2006 and 2009.