MIAMI — Randy Arozarena dazzled with his bat, glove and style. It wasn't enough for Mexico but won countless fans for his adopted nation and himself.
Arozarena jumped at the 8 1/2-foot left field wall to rob Kazuma Okamoto of a home run and preserve a three-run lead, then sparked a two-run rally with a leadoff double in the eighth inning of Monday night's World Baseball Classic semifinal.
While Japan rallied for two runs in the ninth off Giovanny Gallegos for a thrilling 6-5 victory and a championship matchup against the United States, the Mexican team was proud of reaching the semifinals for the first time and raising the sport's profile back home in a land where soccer is No. 1.
“We lost a baseball game but we won many things," Arozarena said. "Mexican baseball continues to grow. This is the first step.”
Mexico had been knocked out in the second round of the 2006 and 2009 WBCs, then failed to advance past the first round in 2013 and 2017.
“I think that they are not aware of what they have done for Mexico and for the Mexican boys and girls,” manager Benji Gil said. “These two weeks are going to attract so many young players in Mexico and also Mexicans that live abroad. For that reason, I believe that this was a victory, even when we didn’t win today.”
Milwaukee's Luis Urías put Mexico ahead in the fourth inning with a three-run homer off 21-year-old sensation Rōki Sasaki, turning on a belt-high cutter from the pitcher who nearly threw consecutive perfect games in Japan last season.
Arozarena preserved the lead with his catch, then stared straight ahead for almost 10 seconds.
That stood until the seventh when Masataka Yoshida pulled JoJo Romero's changeup just inside the right-field foul pole for a tying, three-run drive.
Arozarena had entertained during batting practice, shagging flies in left while wearing a sombrero and cowboy boots. The Tampa Bay Rays outfielder signed autographs for fans behind the left-field wall during a pitching change.
Fans responded, chanting “M-V-P!” at him.
“I leave with much joy because of all the love I received from the fans," Arozarena said. “It was a beautiful experience for me.”
He sparked an eighth-inning rally with a leadoff double against Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the two-time Pacific League MVP who had followed Sasaki and thrown three hitless innings.
Alex Verdugo's RBI double and Isaac Paredes' run-scoring single built a 5-3 lead, but Hotaka Yamakawa hit a sacrifice fly in the eighth and two-time Central League MVP Munetaka Murakami hit a two-run double in the ninth that sent Japan's players sprinting onto the field and left deflated Mexicans hanging over their dugout rail.
“In the U.S., I hope that baseball grows, but it’s not going to grow that much,” Gil said. “We won’t see an extreme change. In Japan, the same, baseball is No. 1. In Mexico, there will be a radical, extreme change. I don’t know whether tomorrow, in one week, in one month, or in one year, but baseball will start growing. It will be the most important game again.”
Arozarena hit .450 with six doubles, one home run and nine RBIs, another big performance in a big event after he hit 10 home runs with 13 RBIs for Tampa Bay in the 2020 postseason.
Now 28, he left Cuba for Mexico after the 2015 season, played briefly for Toros de Tijuana and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was traded to the Rays after the 2019 season and became a Mexican citizen last year.
“His personality, he’s infectious and he’s great for the game,” Gil said. “He’s a great character. I think everybody would agree that he is awesome for baseball. He’s awesome for Cuba. He’s awesome for Mexico. He’s awesome for wherever baseball’s played. Wherever this series was watched, he was awesome for that place. Wherever the game — you know, it doesn’t matter. Korea could have been watching these games and he’s a very popular player everywhere around the world.”