Shohei Ohtani, Japan Top Team USA To Win World Baseball Classic Championship

Image credit: Shohei Ohtani (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

MIAMI — It came down to the matchup everyone wanted to see.

Shohei Ohtani vs. Mike Trout. Bottom of the ninth. Two outs. One-run game. World Baseball Classic championship on the line. It was the stuff of childhood dreams, as well as the dreams of millions of baseball fans across the globe. The game’s two most talented players, teammates the rest of the year but opponents on this night, facing off for the first championship of their professional careers.

The Angels teammates went back and forth, trading balls and strikes until the count was full. Trout swung hard for the fences, trying to get Team USA back in the game. Ohtani threw 100-plus mph fastballs over and over again, trying to overpower his teammate and friend. It was the game’s premier players reaching back for every ounce of ability they had, trying to take the other down and emerge victorious for both them and their teams.

With the count full and the game hanging in the balance, Ohtani took a breath, came set and unleashed one final, furious pitch to beat Trout and lift his country to a title.

Ohtani struck out Trout swinging on a full-count slider for the final out, and Japan beat Team USA, 3-2, on Tuesday night to win the 2023 WBC championship game. It is Japan’s third WBC championship in five editions of the event and its first since 2009.

Japan went 7-0 in the tournament, joining the Dominican Republic in 2013 as the only teams to go undefeated in a WBC. Ohtani was named MVP after he hit .435 with four doubles, a home run and eight RBIs at the plate and went 2-0, 1.86 on the mound with a save in the championship game.

“I believe,” Ohtani said through an interpreter, “this is the best moment in my life.”

The battle between Ohtani and Trout lived up to every expectation. Japan led 3-2 going into the top of the ninth when Ohtani emerged from the bullpen and walked slowly to the mound for his first relief appearance since the 2016 postseason with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Ohtani started Trout with a slider that missed down for ball one. He came back and blew a 100 mph fastball down the middle past his Angels teammate to even the count. Ohtani unleashed another 100 mph fastball that missed outside for ball two. Undeterred, Ohtani delivered yet another 100 mph fastball down the middle, and again Trout swung through it to even the count at 2-2.

Then, Ohtani reared back for something extra. He threw another fastball that clocked in at 102 mph, but he yanked it down and away to run the count full.

After throwing four straight fastballs, all 100 mph or harder, Ohtani went back to the slider. He unleashed an 87 mph spinner that started out over the plate and swept toward the outside corner. Trout swung hard and was on time, but to no avail. The pitch dipped out of his bat path at the last second, and the three-time American League MVP caught nothing but air.

Strike three. Game over.

Ohtani, in the battle of the best, had won.

“He won round one,” Trout said. “ … He’s got nasty stuff. He made a good pitch at the end. It’s one of those things where you gotta tip your hat to him.”

Ohtani let out a primal scream as he stomped off the mound toward his onrushing teammates. He ripped off his glove and threw it toward the plate, and then ripped off his hat and did the same for good measure.

His teammates mobbed him on the mound. The championship celebration began, fittingly, with Ohtani in the middle of it all.

“Earlier in my baseball life, this was one of the things that I wanted to achieve,” Ohtani said. “ … This really proves that Japanese baseball can beat any team in the world.”

Ohtani’s signature moment capped a brilliant day for Japan’s vaunted pitching staff. Manager Hideki Kuriyama beautifully orchestrated a bullpen game that saw seven pitchers combine to limit Team USA to two runs, its fewest of the WBC.

Shoto Imanaga and Shohsei Togo pitched two innings apiece to keep Team USA in check early. Hiroto Takahashi, Hiromi Itoh and Taisei Ota each followed with a scoreless inning of relief.

That set up the grand finish for Japan, bringing in Yu Darvish to pitch the eighth and Ohtani to pitch the ninth.

For the first seven innings, facing an array of Nippon Professional Baseball all-stars, Team USA managed just one run. With an ever-changing variety of arm angles, pitch mixes and styles coming at it, Team USA’s lineup of nine all-stars and three MVP award winners never got comfortable or was able to sustain a consistent attack.

“They weren’t letting us see a guy twice,” Trout said. “I think that was their gameplan going in. They had some nasty stuff. Especially when you don’t see those guys.”

Trea Turner briefly gave Team USA a lead when he continued his scorching week with a solo home run in the top of the second to open the scoring. It was Turner’s fifth home run of the WBC, tying former Korea first baseman Seung Yeop Lee (2006) for most in a single tournament.

But Japan took control from there. It responded in the bottom of the inning when Munetaka Murakami crushed Merrill Kelly’s first pitch of the inning 432 feet into the second deck in right field for an emphatic, game-tying homer. Kazuma Okamoto followed with a single, advanced to third on a single and a walk and scored on a Lars Nootbaar RBI groundout to first, giving Japan a 2-1 lead.

Okamoto, who has five straight 30-home run seasons in NPB, extended the lead to 3-1 when he led off the fourth with a 407-foot homer to left-center off Team USA lefthander Kyle Freeland.

That’s where the scored remained until late. Team USA, stymied by the unfamiliar Japanese arms, stranded runners in scoring position in the first, second, third, fifth and seventh innings.

It wasn’t until the eighth, when it saw a familiar face in Darvish, that it was able to score again, when Kyle Schwarber launched a one-out, solo homer off Darvish into the right-field bleachers to cut the deficit to 3-2.

Turner followed with a single to put the tying runner on base, but Darvish induced flyouts from J.T. Realmuto and Cedric Mullins to hold the line and end the inning.

That set up the showdown everyone had hoped for.

Ohtani, for all of his remarkable, unprecedented feats in MLB, had never appeared in relief since coming to the U.S. He also had never balanced the duties of having to DH while also finding time to warm up.

That led to yet another instance that demonstrated just how incredible Ohtani’s talent is.

Ohtani first went out to the bullpen at the start of the sixth. He jogged back to the dugout and took an at-bat in the seventh, when he ripped a 114 mph grounder off the bat and flew down the line to beat out an infield single. He then walked back out to the bullpen in the eighth inning to warm up and prepare for his U.S. debut as a closer.

The journey back and forth from the bullpen to warm up and the dugout to hit was something only typically seen on Little League and high school fields. Here was Ohtani doing it in the WBC championship game preparing to face the best players in the world.

“What he’s doing in the game is what probably 90% of the guys in that clubhouse did in Little League or in youth tournaments, and he’s able to pull it off on the biggest stages,” Team USA manager Mark DeRosa said. “He is a unicorn to the sport. I think other guys will try it, but I don’t think they’re going to do it to his level.”

Ohtani walked Jeff McNeil to lead off the ninth, but he quickly induced a ground ball double play from Mookie Betts to set up a two-out, ninth-inning showdown with Trout.

As Ohtani has done so often, he emerged victorious, and added yet another legendary moment to his legacy.

“Truly, he’s great at hitting and pitching and he’s excellent and he’s doing something nobody has done in the past,” Okamoto said. “I don’t know how to say this, but he’s somebody we need to chase, go after, because he’s doing something impossible, you know? He just keeps us motivated to catch up with him. I think maybe that’s the reason why we’re just concentrating on playing baseball every day.”

Team USA, meanwhile, won the silver medal for the first time in WBC history. It is Team USA’s second-highest finish, behind only winning the 2017 WBC title.

But Team USA was left to wonder what could have been. It stranded nine men on base in the game. It went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.

That made the one-run loss harder to swallow. Team USA had chances. Japan’s pitching staff just beat them.

“We just didn’t get the big hit,” DeRosa said. “We didn’t swing the bats great tonight. Credit to them, though. I mean, they were bringing in some nasty dudes.”

When it was over, Ohtani accepted his MVP award at home plate, Japan’s players ran out to a makeshift stage on the infield and were doused with confetti as they accepted the WBC championship trophy.

Japan built its 2023 roster with the goal of constructing a team that could beat Team USA. Ohtani, as the most talented player in the world, was central to that goal.

When the time came, in the biggest moment against baseball’s most accomplished player, he delivered.

“I’ve seen Japan winning and I just wanted to be part of it,” Ohtani said. “I really appreciate that I was able to have the great experience.”

Comments are closed.

Download our app

Read the newest magazine issue right on your phone