WBC surpasses expectations in 2023

The 2023 World Baseball Classic will go down in history for all the right reasons.

Every four years, the World Baseball Classic brings together fans from around the globe. Twenty teams face off in a World Cup-like tournament, showcasing the best baseball players on the international stage. 2023’s edition of the WBC — initially scheduled for 2021 but delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic — was among the best yet, featuring a thrilling final match between two baseball powerhouses: USA vs. Japan.

When the International Olympic Committee decided to remove baseball from the Olympics in 2005, the World Baseball Softball Confederation created a tournament modeled after the FIFA World Cup in response. Since the first Classic in 2006, the format has undergone numerous changes, including the addition of qualifying rounds, a round-robin style group stage and ever-growing competition.

The games have the potential to create moments that are, for some, more important than even the World Series. In a social media interview, five out of six Dominican Republic players stated that winning the WBC for their country meant more to them than a World Series title (the other said that the two accomplishments were tied). The tournament brings together millions of fans worldwide, from the fanatic supporters of Samurai Japan to the die-hard superfans of Cuba.

This year’s tournament was no different, bringing record-shattering numbers of viewers — particularly in Japan. 2023 saw one of the most star-studded lineups yet, with massive names on almost every country’s team. Team USA sent 21 All-Stars and four MVPs to the tournament, with players such as Mike Trout, Trae Turner, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Pete Alonso, Kyle Schwarber and others filling out the roster. Team Japan sent an equally impressive lineup of NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) and MLB superstar players, including Yu Darvish and MLB phenom Shohei Ohtani.

Despite the hype surrounding the tournament, there has been backlash from multiple media outlets. American fans have been incredibly harsh toward the idea of an “exhibition tournament” so close to the start of the MLB season. MLB teams dislike the WBC due to the injury risk their players assume. The fears of injury would be realized during the Puerto Rico-Dominican Republic game, when Mets star closer Edwin Díaz suffered a knee injury after celebrating the upset victory. After the game, the team confirmed that Díaz would miss the entire season. American fans and media ripped into the WBC, but it did little to slow the tournament’s viewership. Team USA also imposed strict pitch count restrictions that essentially handcuffed the team. These limits and risks led to several star Americans, like Aaron Judge, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer, among others, opting out of the chance to compete for Team USA.

2023 saw fantastic games throughout the tournament, from the opening pitch to the final at-bat. Despite losing its opening game to Columbia, Mexico won their pool largely thanks to an 11-5 blowout against Team USA. Puerto Rico’s winner-take-all match against the Dominican Republic saw team PR take an incredible 5-2 win with an electric atmosphere in a sold-out Miami stadium. That was just the beginning, as the knockout stage would be electric. Mexico’s 5-4 victory over Puerto Rico was a thriller, as Team Mexico returned from a 4-0 deficit in the top of the first inning. A go-ahead single by Luis Urías in the seventh gave Mexico a lead which they would never relinquish.

While this was happening, Team USA collapsed, and went from a 5-2 lead to a 7-5 deficit. However, in the top of the eighth, Trae Turner’s no-doubt grand slam gave the Americans a 9-7 lead they’d hang onto, securing the victory and a semifinal berth against Cuba.

Mexico would become the focus of another incredible matchup when they took on Japan, a game which was later ranked as MLB.com’s best game in WBC history. Mexico went up 3-0 off an Urías homer in the fourth, and Arozarena’s legendary catch at the wall prevented a huge home run for the Japanese. However, Japan rallied towards the end, and were down by just one run in the bottom of the 9th. After an Ohtani double and a walk by Masataka Yoshida, Munetaka Murakami, who had gone 0-4 with three strikeouts, hit a walk-off double off the wall to give Japan the 6-5 victory.

After Team USA crushed the Cubans 14-2 in the semifinal, the stage was set for the biggest game in recent history. The game was highlighted by the superstars of both teams: Shohei Ohtani on Team Japan against Mike Trout on Team USA. The two Los Angeles Angels teammates are the faces of their generations, with Trout’s legendary career at the plate and in the field almost guaranteeing him a future in the Hall of Fame. Ohtani, in comparison, is one of the most electric talents in baseball today as one of the first successful two-way players (able to pitch and hit) in decades. The stage was set as they both carried the flags onto the field during the pregame ceremonies, and the two squads didn’t waste any time providing fireworks.

Trae Turner got an early home run in the second inning to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead, but Japan responded with a homer of their own and another score to make it a 1-2 game. Japan scored again in the bottom of the fourth to make it a 3-1 lead, but Kyle Schwarber’s moonshot home run brought the score to within one run. Starting in the seventh inning, fans realized the possibility of an Ohtani-vs-Trout at bat. Ohtani warmed up for the ninth inning, and it became the perfect ending. After recording the first two outs, Mike Trout approached the plate to face his teammate.

Trout, the face of a generation, facing off against the face of the next generation. The at-bat couldn’t have been better if it was scripted, as Ohtani fired three fastballs over 100mph to make the count full at 3-2. With two outs, a full count and the game on the line, Ohtani delivered a perfect outside slider to bring up the swinging strike, ending the most anticipated at-bat in years with a beautiful strikeout.

The WBC title was Japan’s third, bringing their first victory since 2009. Ohtani’s heroics in the final and throughout the tournament earned him a deserving MVP award after earning the most runs and pitching the most innings. After the hype generated around 2023, the anticipation for 2026 is beginning to build. However, even as we turn our eyes to the next tournament, the memories of 2023 will live on for years to come. Showcasing the best the world has to offer, it was the perfect end to an excellent tournament.