MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Team USA one win from Classic breakthrough

Takes on two-time champ Japan in semifinal tonight, 9 p.m. ET

Team USA one win from Classic breakthrough

Regardless of how it plays out, Team USA has done itself proud in this World Baseball Classic. That's the thing these players will take with them for the rest of their lives.

To watch the Americans play is to be caught up in their resolve and emotion. In an incredibly short period of time, a bunch of guys from all around the Major Leagues have been transformed into a cohesive, emotional, close-knit team.

This simply does not happen very often, and so it's a tribute to these players and to their manager, Jim Leyland, the guy who filled out 3,499 lineup cards during 22 seasons as a Major League skipper.

"We want this to be a memory for them," Leyland said. "And believe me, it's going to be a memory for them no matter how it turns out. It's been absolutely fantastic."

That it has. The Americans have rallied from two-run deficits in three of their four victories. They let a five-run advantage slip away in one game, dusted themselves off and got an 8-0 victory the next day.

And then, on Saturday night, they delivered one of those moments that surely resonated in the hearts of every baseball fan.

With the game on the line, Adam Jones made one of the great game-saving defensive plays of all-time, leaping against the wall in center and robbing Manny Machado of a home run.

Must C: Jones brings back homer

Now here are the Americans with a chance to do something no Team USA has ever done in the Classic -- play for the gold medal. 

That's what's on the line in the U.S.-Japan semifinal game at 9 p.m. ET tonight at Dodger Stadium (on MLB Network and MLB.TV). The winner will play Puerto Rico -- 7-0 in this tournament and the 2013 runner-up -- in the final on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET, also on MLB Network and MLB.TV.

Previewing Japan vs. USA

"As far as atmosphere and energy goes, this is comparable to a playoff game, to a World Series game," Team USA first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "Honestly, as players, this is the type of atmosphere of games you dream about playing in."

In three previous appearances in the World Baseball Classic, the Americans didn't make it to the medal stand.

Every player, manager and coach involved with Team USA is aware of that history. They speak of how close they've come and of the emotions they've felt in games that have been played amid raucous crowds.

"We've got more people on board with the WBC," Jones said. "I think when USA is still in it, I think people are like, 'OK!' They jump on board and think that we can do something special. So hopefully, we can just continue to ride this wave and grind it out."

For the Japanese, this experience is nothing new. They won the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and '09, and they will be making their fourth straight appearance in the semifinals.

Japan is 6-0 this year despite having just one Major Leaguer (Norichika Aoki of the Astros). Japan has had a slightly easier path to the finals, with Korea eliminated in the first round.

But Japan has homered 10 times in six games, and three of those homers are from Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh, the 25-year-old left fielder who led Japan's Pacific League with 44.

Tomoyuki Sugano, the ace of the Yomiuri Giants, will get the ball for Japan. Though Sugano has allowed five earned runs in 8 1/3 innings in the World Baseball Classic, he is coming off a season in which he struck out 189 batters in 183 innings while posting a 2.01 ERA.

With a berth in Wednesday's championship game at stake, Leyland on Monday said he wanted his players to embrace all they've done right and the relationships they've built.

Leyland on Team USA advancing

In three previous Classics, virtually every American who participated said it was one of the great experiences of their careers -- not just the international competition but being able to see the game from another angle, with a new group of teammates.

"The team that's been assembled, it's just a cohesive unit," Jones said. "Everybody wants to be there for the next person. It's not like an I, I, I. Everything that's been spoken in that clubhouse has been 'we,' and you see the sacrifice the individuals are making for the greater good of this team."

One more victory would make the whole thing even more special. As Hosmer said, "We feel like this is what brings the best out in us."

The World Baseball Classic runs through Wednesday. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.