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Nationals' Tanner Roark pitches 4 scoreless innings in US defeat of Japan in WBC

Nationals' Tanner Roark pitches 4 scoreless innings in US defeat of Japan in WBC

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Luke Gregerson's final strike breezed past Nobuhiro Matsuda, and the rain-drenched American players celebrated on the field while a soaked crowd roared through the evening mist.

A daylong downpour couldn't dampen this resilient United States club or its fans, who will finally get to root for the home team in a World Baseball Classic championship game.

Brandon Crawford scored the tiebreaking run when Matsuda bobbled Adam Jones' grounder to third in the eighth inning, and the United States reached the WBC final for the first time by beating Japan 2-1 on Tuesday night at rainy Dodger Stadium.

Andrew McCutchen drove in an early run for the U.S., which will play Puerto Rico for the title Wednesday night. Puerto Rico edged the Netherlands 4-3 in 11 innings Monday.

"It means a heck of a lot," said McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates slugger. "We've got a great group of guys on this team who have dedicated this time to be able to try and win some ballgames. Sacrifices had to be made, and there are no egos when that door opens. That's what's good about this team. Everybody is a superstar on this team. There are no egos."

The World Baseball Classic final has been played in the United States in each of its four editions, but the home team had never been able to play America's pastime on what has become its biggest international stage. The U.S. only reached the semifinals once before, in 2009.

While manager Jim Leyland's current roster is missing Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout and many other American superstars, the All-Star-laden group that decided to participate has won two straight elimination games to earn a chance for the U.S.' first crown.

"Coming into this event, I didn't really want to talk about the fact that the United States has never won it (and) they've never gone to the finals," Leyland said. "I didn't think that was a big deal. I wanted this, for the players, to be a memory. I've talked a lot about it. Make a memory. Hopefully it's a real good one, regardless of the results (Wednesday). I know it is for me. It's been an absolute honor."

To reach the final, the Americans had to persevere through an uncharacteristic Los Angeles rain that drenched the playing field several hours before game time. They also had to beat a gifted Japanese team at its own game: pitching, defense and small ball.

Ryosuke Kikuchi hit a tying homer off reliever Nate Jones in the sixth inning for Japan, but the two-time WBC champions were twice let down by their normally sturdy defense.

McCutchen opened the scoring with an RBI single in the fourth moments after Kikuchi's two-base error at second. In the eighth, Crawford likely would have been out at the plate on Jones' innocent grounder, but Matsuda didn't field it cleanly and had to throw to first.

"Well, two plays," Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said through a translator. "Honestly, there were some mistakes, and then a run was scored. ... The team that makes mistakes will lose. That's what it means. I cannot blame them, though, for doing that."

Japan won the first two WBC tournaments before losing in the 2013 semifinals, and Kokubo's current team was unbeaten in this event.

"The players really did their very best," Kokubo said. "I really appreciate it. It's do-or-die, one semifinal."

Tanner Roark pitched four scoreless innings of two-hit ball before Leyland pulled him on the instructions of the Washington Nationals, who limited Roark to 50 pitches because he hadn't faced live hitters in nine days.

"I felt good enough to stay out there," Roark said.

Gregerson, the Americans' sixth reliever, worked a perfect ninth inning after Pat Neshek escaped a two-on jam in the eighth.

Leyland is confident he'll have a capable bullpen Wednesday after receiving texts from various pitching coaches around the majors on the status of their players. Toronto's Marcus Stroman, the starter, is free to reach the WBC's 95-pitch limit, Leyland confirmed.

Although the crowd of 33,462 strongly favored the team with five California natives in the starting lineup, thousands of Japanese fans showed up early and chanted throughout the game, accompanied by the brass band in the left-field bleachers.

Tomoyuki Sugano, the Yomiuri Giants ace with a seven-pitch repertoire, tossed six innings of three-hit ball for Japan, striking out six and yielding only one unearned run.

But Sugano was matched by Roark, who gave up just two singles and a walk in his four innings, also hitting a batter with a pitch.

After Christian Yelich reached second in the fourth inning when his hard-hit grounder was mishandled by Kikuchi, the standout defensive second baseman, Eric Hosmer worked out of an 0-2 count to draw a two-out walk.

McCutchen had just two hits in his first 14 at-bats in the WBC, but he drove in Yelich with a sharp single to left.

Kikuchi made up for his mistake in the sixth, driving Jones' fastball barely over the reach of McCutchen in right field for his first homer of the tournament.

Japan reliever Kodai Senga struck out the first four batters he faced with a 96 mph fastball and exceptional off-speed stuff, but Crawford then delivered a sharp single before Ian Kinsler doubled to deep left-center.

Neshek got cleanup hitter Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh on a fly to right to end the eighth.

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Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It’s tough to blot out the sun and joy in south Florida. Friday was an exception. The temperature dropped into the 60s, clouds won the day and if West Palm Beach can be labeled dreary, the title fit on Friday as the wind whipped around.

The poor weather forced the Nationals into a truncated workout before their first game of spring training. Typically, the Grapefruit League opener for each team would be a signifier of the creeping regular season. It’s not a thing. Certainly not a thing, thing. But that will be the case Saturday night when Max Scherzer faces the still-reeling Houston Astros.

The week has not been kind to the Astros. Meanwhile, the Nationals have mixed goofing around with standard practices.

Houston absorbed shots from multiple players, notably including Atlanta outfielder Nick Markakis, who said every Astros player “needs a beating,” which prompted Houston manager Dusty Baker to retort Markakis must have had his Wheaties that morning. Earlier in the week, a fan ran up and banged a garbage can when José Altuve and others were taking batting practice, then took off.

Washington was busy with a cabbage race on National Cabbage Day and mercilessly pelting the head of its public relations director with water balloons on his birthday. Music played, Scherzer tussled with Starlin Castro, Trea Turner and Adam Eaton when throwing live batting practice, and Howie Kendrick held a rematch with Will Harris for the first time as teammates.

No one talked about death threats, which Houston outfielder Josh Reddick did on Friday when mentioning some of the social media backlash he is managing. No one on the Nationals’ side prompted hi-jinks from fans. The air horn signalled when to move, modern rap or the gravelly of Chris Stapleton bellowed from large speakers, and everyone generally went about their business.

The question about Saturday is if anything out of the ordinary will happen. What if Scherzer loses command of a pitch in his first outing and hits an Astros player? Who decides intent? Baker is so concerned about retaliation against his players, he publicly called on the league to warn other teams. Commissioner Rob Manfred said he did as much when talking to a large chunk of managers at his annual spring training press conference. Tony Clark, executive director of the MLBPA, said Friday the issue remains on the minds of the Astros.

“When you have comments publicly that suggest certain things may happen on the field, it’s hard to ignore those,” Clark said.

Clark spent roughly four hours meeting with Astros players on Friday. A large “2017 World Series champions” sign was one of the few things above the 6-foot-8 head of the players’ union. He said Houston players were “contrite and direct” in their discussions with him and they were concerned about “making sure the game is in the best place possible moving forward.” Clark’s comment came at lunchtime the day after the Nationals went through a parade through downtown West Palm Beach to yet again celebrate winning last season.

Houston will not play its regulars Saturday. Washington will play a few. Joe Ross will pitch after Scherzer. Everyone will watch Carter Kieboom in the field at third base. Baker and Martinez should cross paths. In the stands? Who knows? Every stadium is filled with metal garbage cans and beer vendors.

“I’m hoping that on our side, I can’t tell you anything about the Houston Astros or what they’re going to do or whatever, but for us we act professional, we go about our business and we get ready for the season,” Martinez said. “Go out there and compete and just get ready to play.”

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As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

The unwritten rules of baseball say that when your team is wronged or disrespected by an opponent, it’s on the pitching staff to retaliate.

Whether spoken aloud or not, that rule will be put to the test this season when the Houston Astros play out their 162-game schedule. From AL West division rivals to clubs that lost to Houston in recent playoff series, teams from across MLB are trying to grapple with the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal that’s dominated the sport’s headlines for most of the offseason.

After many players came out voicing displeasure with MLB’s decision not to punish the players involved with the cheating scheme, Las Vegas sportsbooks put out an over/under total of 83.5 for the number of times the Astros will be hit by a pitch in 2020.

NBC4 Washington’s Lindsay Czarniak spoke with several members of the Astros on Friday about whether opposing teams would try to retaliate for their use of technology to steal opposing pitchers’ signs in real time during their World Series run in 2017 and parts of the 2018 season.

“I’m not concerned about that,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We’re grown men out here and whatever happens, happens. We just go out there and be professional and play the game.”

In 2019, there were 1,984 hit batters, or an average of just over 66 per team. Only one team, the New York Yankees, exceeded that total of 83.5 (they had 86 batters hit by a pitch). But despite MLB cracking down on pitchers intentionally hitting batters and handing out stiffer penalties for pitchers suspected of doing so, the number of hit batters has been on a steady incline the last half-decade.

In fact, the number of hit batters has increased every season since 2015. There were 1,602 batters hit by pitches that season, an average of 53.4 per team. That makes the 2019 total a 23.8 percent increase over the figure from five years prior.

Houston was right at the league average last season, watching its hitters take pitches of themselves 66 times. While the threat of disgruntled players deciding to take matters into their own hands looms, the Astros are preaching the same company line about only focusing on themselves.

“We can’t worry about that,” starter Lance McCullers told Czarniak. “That’s something that a lot of players have been speaking out about. We’re not sure if those players [are] speaking that way because they want to sound a certain way, they want to be portrayed a certain way. We can only worry about what’s in this locker room at that’s something that Dusty has really been preaching to us.

“We just got to go out there and we just got to play baseball and whatever comes along with this season we’ll address it and we’ll deal with it then.”

These comments also come on heels of MLB issuing a memo to teams laying out a new process umpires will be using to determine if pitchers are intentionally hitting batters during games. The umpires will now discuss the pitch in question among themselves before anyone is tossed, with managers being held more accountable. The change is reportedly not related to the Astros but comes at a convenient time for them and MLB.

That all said, 83.5 is still a high number for bettors to consider. It wouldn’t be unprecedented, but the Astros would most likely be among the most-hit clubs in baseball if they do approach that total.

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