I’m grinning as I write this sentence. I don’t know any other way to start this piece, celebrating the 2023 World Baseball Classic, other than to bask in the pure joy that capped the tournament.
The 2023 WBC was even more entertaining than I expected—and I was a tremendous enthusiast already. With a surfeit of stars competing, fans engaged across five continents, and an ending so perfect it seemed like the product of an over-the-top script, the first WBC since 2017 more than delivered. It awed. It delighted. And it finished with Samurai Japan’s third title, as MVP Shohei Ohtani whiffed Angels teammate Mike Trout for the final out.
Initially, I thought about writing this post with a Ringer-style winners and losers format—but other than the Dominican Republic and a couple of injured MLB stars (whose pain, while certainly unfortunate, hopefully will not prevent star participation in future WBCs), it was hard to find any losers from this captivating, compelling, completely climactic tournament. So instead, let’s run down the top 10 moments from a phenomenally memorable World Baseball Classic:
10. Joey Meneses Double Dips vs. the United States
Mexico was in trouble after just one game. The dark horse contender used its ace, Julio Urías, in its opener, but fell to Colombia in extra innings. And the most formidable foe in its pool, the defending champion United States, awaited in Game 2.
Fortunately, Mexico had Joey Meneses hitting third in its lineup. The Nationals first baseman broke out as a 30-year-old rookie last season, and his hot streak evidently persisted through the winter. Against the U.S., he opened the scoring in the first inning with a two-run homer off Nick Martinez. In his next at-bat, he reached on an infield single and came around to score. And in his third trip to the plate, he turned a competitive contest into a blowout, crushing a three-run blast off Brady Singer to boost Mexico’s lead to 7-1.
As a team, Mexico pounded 15 hits en route to 11 runs in the win, which propelled the eventual semifinalists to the top of Pool C. Meneses hit .370/.370/.593 in the tournament.
9. Pool A’s Five-Way Tie
The 2023 World Baseball Classic format was streamlined compared to past editions, which involved multiple rounds of pool play. This version had four pools with five teams apiece, and the top two from each pool would advance to the quarterfinals. Easy, simple, open and shut.
Or at least that was the theory. But Pool A didn’t cooperate, instead descending into tiebreaker chaos as all five teams finished 2-2 in round-robin play. The result was anything but simple, as even the WBC broadcasts and official social media channels were seemingly confused by the Byzantine procedures. (The tiebreaker was really just the lowest run average allowed—ERA with unearned runs counted, too—but the phrase “lowest quotient of fewest runs allowed divided by the number of defensive outs recorded” certainly made it sound complicated.)
Eventually, the five-way tie was sorted and Cuba (which started 0-2) advanced as the group winner, while Italy and its dugout espresso machine advanced in second place. The Netherlands (which started 2-0), Panama, and Chinese Taipei were all eliminated.
8. Japanese-Czech High Jinks
One of the little joys of the WBC is that the wide spread in talent pools among its participants effectively sets up a real-life laboratory experiment: What happens when MLB All-Stars face players at a completely different level on the baseball hierarchy? Sometimes the result is as expected. (See: the U.S. lineup scoring nine runs in the first inning against Canada, which started a teenager who spent last season in Single-A.) Other times, the outcome is more of a surprise.
That dynamic manifested even more than usual this year, as the WBC field expanded from 16 to 20 teams and allowed three debutant countries—Nicaragua, Great Britain, and the Czech Republic—to compete. Of all the teams in the field, the Czech Republic looked the most overmatched, with a roster mostly composed of amateurs (plus former MLB infielder Eric Sogard) who hold day jobs as firefighters, real estate agents, and the like.
But the Czechs didn’t just win their first game with a ninth-inning rally (8-5 over China). And they didn’t just automatically qualify for the 2026 WBC, by virtue of their performance this year. They also went toe-to-toe with mighty Samurai Japan in the Tokyo Dome, for at least a few innings until the hosts pulled away. In the process, the Czechs created several indelible memories.
Two moments stand out:
- Czech starter Ondrej Satoria, who works as an electrician when he’s not on the mound, struck out Shohei Ohtani with a 71 mph changeup, and afterward described the experience as “like [a] heart attack.”
- Flame-throwing Japanese starter Roki Sasaki, the best young pitcher in the world, hit Czech outfielder William Escala in the leg with a triple-digit fastball. What ensued, however, wasn’t a beanball war. Instead, Sasaki apologized with a gift of two giant bags of Japanese candy and a signed ball.
7. Duque Hebbert’s Life-Changing Inning
Imagine, reader, that you’re 21 years old. You haven’t been pitching long—only about a year and a half, in a semipro environment and then the Nicaraguan Winter League. And on an international stage, you’re being called in from the bullpen to face the fearsome top of the Dominican Republic’s batting order: Juan Soto, followed by Julio Rodríguez and Manny Machado and then, if one reaches base—and look at those names; at least one will certainly reach base—Rafael Devers. What is going through your head?
For Duque Hebbert, that very 21-year-old Nicaraguan reliever, the thought during his team’s 6-1 loss in pool play was simple: “I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Hebbert told MLB.com in Spanish. “I got the toughest part of the lineup.”
But unlike the hypothetical reader in this situation, Hebbert not only survived this gauntlet, but thrived. He struck out Soto, struck out Rodríguez, and—after a Machado double—struck out Devers, too. And his remarkable journey didn’t end there: Tigers scout Luis Molina, working for Team Nicaragua in the tournament, offered Hebbert a minor league contract on the spot.
Hebbert wasn’t the only player who inked a new deal after appearing in the WBC: Colombian reliever Jhon Romero signed a minor league contract with the Guardians, and Dutch outfielder Jurickson Profar signed with the Rockies. But both of those players had appeared in the majors before, while Hebbert had never pitched at a higher level than the Nicaraguan Winter League. And he struck out three All-Stars in the same inning! Baseball is wonderful.
6. Puerto Rico’s (Sort of) Perfect Game
Technically, by MLB rules, Puerto Rico’s 10-0 win over Israel in pool play wasn’t a perfect game. José De León (10 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings), Yacksel Ríos, Edwin Díaz, and Duane Underwood Jr. didn’t allow a single base runner—but they combined for only eight innings, because Puerto Rico reached the mercy rule threshold and ended the game early.
Given Puerto Rico’s historic success at the WBC, the 2023 edition may have registered as a relative disappointment: In the quarterfinals, Puerto Rico blew a lead and lost to Mexico. But Yadier Molina’s team beat the rival Dominican Republic in a de facto elimination game, and it pitched the first (almost) perfecto in tournament history. And who cares about the almost, anyway? “It’s perfect for us,” De León said.
5. Venezuela’s Group Stage Romp
The 2023 WBC’s “group of death” was clearly Pool D, which featured three of the half-dozen best teams in the tournament. One of Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic was guaranteed to go home early—and because the D.R. entered the tournament as betting favorites and Puerto Rico had reached the past two WBC finals, Venezuela began as the underdog.
But Martín Pérez and Luis Garcia shut down the dominant Dominican bats in a 5-1 opening win, and behind José Altuve, Luis Arraez, Ronald Acuña Jr., Salvador Perez, and Anthony Santander, the Venezuelan lineup mashed all tournament long. In their second game, they took a 9-1 lead against Puerto Rico and held on for a 9-6 victory; they coasted against Nicaragua and Israel; and they took a lead into the late innings of their quarterfinal matchup against the United States. What happened next is, well, the subject of another moment higher up this list.
But what Venezuela accomplished up to that point is worth celebrating, just as the Venezuelan players and fans celebrated all tournament long. Only two countries finished undefeated in pool play: Japan, which defeated four much weaker teams, and Venezuela, which beat two of the pre-tournament favorites.
4. Ohtani’s Heroics, Part 1
As befits a two-way player, we’ll split Ohtani’s WBC exploits into two parts. He’s the best player in baseball, and he delivered in the most meaningful games he’s played since joining the Angels in 2018. “It’s been a while since I was playing in a win-or-lose game, a playoff-atmosphere game,” he said after Japan’s semifinal win.
At the plate, Ohtani tormented opposing pitchers all tournament long. He lined a double with an exit velocity of 119 mph. He nearly hit his own face (on a giant billboard in the Tokyo Dome) with a 448-foot homer. He beat out an infield single in the final, for good measure. Overall, he hit .435/.606/.739 across seven games—essentially Bondsian numbers, albeit in a smaller sample and against different levels of competition.
And on the mound, Ohtani pitched in three games (two starts), recording a cumulative 1.86 ERA with 11 strikeouts and just five hits allowed in 9 2/3 innings. He collected two wins and one save. And I’ll have more to say about that save later on.
3. Trea Turner’s Grand Slam
Despite boasting the tournament’s best lineup, the United States failed to defend its 2017 title. But the Americans enjoyed the tournament’s most dramatic home run en route to their second consecutive appearance in the championship round.
Let’s return to that quarterfinal against the theretofore-undefeated Venezuelans. Two Arraez homers and a meltdown from U.S. reliever Daniel Bard—two wild pitches, two walks, and one hit by pitch—had given Venezuela a 7-5 lead entering the eighth inning, with the bottom of the U.S. order ready to bat.
But a lineup as deep as the Americans’ offers no respite, and a walk, single, and HBP loaded the bases with no outs for no. 9 hitter Trea Turner. Rather than closer José Alvarado, Venezuela brought in journeyman reliever Silvino Bracho to attempt to defuse the threat. And Bracho responded by threading an 0-2 changeup down the middle, which Turner happily deposited into the left-field seats for a tournament-saving grand slam.
Turner connected for two more homers in the U.S. squad’s semifinal win against Cuba, and another in the championship against Japan. Add in his blast against Canada in pool play, and he finished the tournament with a record-tying five home runs. But only his grand slam against Venezuela made him, he said, “feel like I blacked out.” Manager Mark DeRosa one-upped his heroic hitter: “I saw about 35 guys, including the coaches, kind of black out.”
2. Japan 6, Mexico 5
Including a whole game might be cheating—but if I split this game up into individual moments, half the list would comprise different plays from the Japan-Mexico semifinal, perhaps the most thrilling game in WBC history.
There was Sasaki, effortlessly hitting 100 mph with almost every fastball. There was Patrick Sandoval, who beat the U.S. in his first start of the tournament, looking even nastier against Japan. There was Randy Arozarena, robbing a home run, celebrating with an intense stare, and signing autographs in the outfield during a pitching change. There was new Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida, tying the game with a moonshot three-run homer after Japan had left the bases loaded two innings in a row.
And there, in the bottom of the ninth inning, with Japan trailing 5-4, was Ohtani striding to the plate against Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos. Baseball isn’t like other team sports; the best batters aren’t guaranteed to be involved when the game is on the line. But kismet won out this time and gave Ohtani the chance to be a hero.
He obliged with a leadoff double, punctuated by an emphatic celebration from second base. Yoshida followed with a walk. And then third baseman Munetaka Murakami, the reigning NPB Triple Crown winner, supplied the climactic fireworks with a walkoff two-run double.
AS CALLED ON JAPANESE TV: pic.twitter.com/3zzrOXp0O5— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) March 21, 2023
The game was baseball at its most suspenseful and spectacular, a triumph for the tournament and the sport at large. “Japan advances,” Mexico manager Benji Gil said afterward. “But the world of baseball won today.”
1. Ohtani’s Heroics, Part 2, a.k.a. Ohtani vs. Trout for the Title
So, about that idea that the best batters in baseball aren’t guaranteed to be involved when the game is on the line? How about for the climactic moment of the entire tournament?
Heading into the final, a matchup between Ohtani and Trout was the dream. Ohtani would start at DH, not as Japan’s pitcher, but he was available to enter in relief, and if Japan were ahead, and if the score were close enough to require a closer, and if Trout were up in a key spot, the two Angels might actually face each other for the first time.
Somehow, all those ifs aligned, and the dream became reality. Turner and Murakami traded solo homers, and Japan took a 3-1 lead after a bases-loaded groundout and another solo shot, this time from first baseman Kazuma Okamoto. Kyle Schwarber got a run back in the eighth inning with a homer off Yu Darvish, also pitching in relief for Samurai Japan—but the U.S. left nine men on base and couldn’t break through to tie the game.
Enter Ohtani for the ninth, after an amusing series of jogs to and from the bullpen as he simultaneously warmed up for his first relief appearance since joining MLB and continued to hit in the third spot in Japan’s lineup. And with two outs and no men on, in a one-run game, with the title on the line, Trout entered the batter’s box to face his teammate.
The two greatest players of a generation, if not any generation, traded balls and strikes. Ball one, followed by a 100 mph fastball that Trout couldn’t touch. Ball two, followed by another 100 mph heater that Trout swung through. Then ball three—touching 102!—to bring the count full.
And then Ohtani, who’d challenged Trout with four triple-digit fastballs in a row, and who’d used his four-seamer to induce a double-play ball off the bat of Mookie Betts one at-bat earlier, switched things up. He spun a slider toward the outside edge of the plate, a fooled Trout swung early, and Ohtani launched his hat and glove with a roar.
Trout vs Ohtani lived up to the HYPE! #WorldBaseballClassic pic.twitter.com/Z8aZAjpDRg— World Baseball Classic (@WBCBaseball) March 22, 2023
Like the 2022 World Cup, whose final featured five combined goals (plus two more in a penalty shootout) from Paris Saint-Germain teammates Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé, the 2023 WBC finished with a flourish and its brightest stars at center stage. Baseball doesn’t always happen this way. Heck, the WBC hadn’t happened at all in six years, thanks to a pandemic and an MLB lockout.
But for the past fortnight, the World Baseball Classic was special. For a bit, baseball was downright cool, which makes its dramatic end a fitting encapsulation of the entire tournament. The MLB season hasn’t started yet, and we’ve probably already witnessed the biggest baseball thrill of 2023.