Yet another classic World Cup game was played in Russia yesterday, featuring an astonishing comeback by favored Belgium and a heartbreaking loss for underdogs Japan.
The Belgians had breezed through group play without losing a match, while Japan only made the knock out rounds because of a tie-breaker with Senegal that came down to the Japanese having been issued fewer yellow cards through three games. This was supposed to be a romp by Belgium and instead they needed a two-goal comeback capped off by a strike just before stoppage time expired to win the game 3-2.
Belgium looked unsure of itself and more than a little careless, especially just before the end of the first half when keeper Thibaut Courtois fumbled a harmless shot, letting it slip through his legs and almost across the goal line before he reached desperately around to stop it. The half ended scoreless and perhaps Japan sensed they could take this match and it appeared they would do just that, building a two goal lead into the second half and it looked as though yet another upset was in the works.
But Belgium got a spark of luck on a poor clearance attempt by the Japanese defense, a ball that deflected off the head of Belgium's Jan Vertonghen and into the net, and they equalized the game not long after.
The last 5 minutes of stoppage time with the game tied at two were heart stopping for both sides. Japan nearly took a 3-2 lead when Keisuke Honda booted a free kick from long distance up and over the wall of Belgian defenders, a ball that then curved and dipped toward the net and if not for a brilliant leaping punch save by Courtois the game would have gone to Japan.
But dreams of moving on turned into a nightmare on the very next play, a corner kick by Japan that Courtois handled easily. He then rolled the ball forward to Nacer Chadli, who broke into a full sprint, catching the Japanese defenders flatfooted as they scrambled to get back down field. Chadli passed to an open wing mate wide right, he broke toward goal and then sent a pass through that appeared headed for a well covered teammate, but it was dummy ball the forward let pass by to an unchecked Chadli, who rolled the ball past the helpless Japan keeper a mere eight seconds before the final whistle sounded.
A devastating result for Japan and a sigh of relief for Belgium, who face Brazil next after their 2-0 win over Mexico, and the Belgians can ill afford to let themselves fall behind by two goals in that match, but what an extraordinary game in what has been an equally so tournament so far.
Two more elimination games are on tap today with Sweden taking on Switzerland at 10am and Columbia running against England at 2 o'clock eastern standard time.
To Major League Baseball and anyone who's heard me disparage the national league for still letting pitchers hit in the 21st century should have some fun at my expense today, because the biggest hit in last night's 4-3 win for the Boston Red Sox over the Washington Nationals came courtesy of pitcher Rick Porcello.
It was one of those classic N.L. scenarios that make me call annually for the DH to be employed on the senor circuit. The Red Sox had runners on second and third with two outs and number eight hitter Jackie Bradley Jr. coming to the plate. The Nats had their ace fire-baller Max Scherzer on the mound, so Nats manager Dave Martinez did what National League managers almost always do in this situation: walk the batter with first base open to get to the pitcher, easy out, inning over. And most of the time that's exactly what happened. Except this time Porcello ripped a bases clearing double to give the Red Sox a 3-0 lead and Scherzer was none too happy with the decision to walk Bradley, feeling he could have taken care of a guy barely batting over .200 and he may have a point.
The game was still up for grabs in the late innings, though, the Red Sox clinging to a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth, when Joe Kelly walked Mark Reynolds and Sox manager Alex Cora called on closer Craig Kimbrel to finish that inning for a shaky Kelly and go on to pitch the ninth for a four-out save.
That's not something Cora wants to do, preferring not to overwork his closer in July, but with every game critical in the neck and neck race for first place in the A.L. east with the NY Yankees, Cora clearly saw an opportunity for a W he didn't want to let slip away.
As for the Yankees, they got a good look at the young and some would say overachieving Atlanta Braves and one of their young stars, Ronald Acuna, Jr., who came up in the top of the 11th at the Stadium last night with one on in a tie 3-3 game, which he promptly untied with a high fly ball to right that ticked off the glove of Aaron Judge and into the stands for a game winning 2-run homer and a 5-3 Atlanta victory. The blast came off David Robertson, the fifth Yankee reliever of the night, and the Red Sox say thank you, Atlanta, as they move back into first place, one game ahead of New York.
The Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers also played extras at the Rogers Centre, and even though the Tigers blew a save in the 9th when reliever Joe Jimenez walked in the tying run with the bases loaded, a sac fly by Jose Iglesias in the top of the tenth gave Detroit a 3-2 victory.
The Jays welcome the NY Mets, who were idle last night, to the Rogers Centre this evening.
The only shocker at day one of the Wimbledon tennis tournament was the ouster of Sloane Stephens, the women's defending US Open champ, losing to unseeded Donna Vekic of Croatia. On the men's side number one seed Roger Federer breezed to a fist round win and number one women's seed Simona Halep is in action today. One interesting note. Despite England being in action today in the World Cup the all England club will not be showing that game.