World Baseball Classic: Shohei Ohtani closes out Team USA as Japan wins 3rd title
No player in baseball history has shown a two-way ability at the level of Shohei Ohtani, and now the Team Japan and Los Angeles Angels star can add one more item to an already unprecedented résumé: World Baseball Classic closer.
Ohtani put the finishing touches on Japan's undefeated run at the 2023 WBC on Tuesday, protecting a one-run lead in the ninth inning of a 3-2 win in Miami and giving his country an unmatched third title in the event's history.
Ohtani started the game as Japan's designated hitter, going 1-for-3 with a run and a walk at the plate. Even before he took the field, there was speculation about if he would see the mound after the Angels gave their public blessing for the former MVP to pitch. Ohtani moved between the dugout and bullpen several times in the later innings before finally emerging in the ninth for what will likely go down as one of the most watched moments in baseball history.
The inning started with a full-count walk of Jeff McNeil, but that was followed by a double-play off the bat of Mookie Betts. It all came down to a matchup so serendipitous it felt scripted: Ohtani vs. his Angels teammate Mike Trout, the most talented player of a generation against the most talented player of the previous generation.
Strikeout, ballgame, championship.
There it is! Japan wins the WBC for the 3rd time in history! 🇯🇵
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) March 22, 2023
And here's the Japanese call of the ending:
AS CALLED ON JAPANESE TV: pic.twitter.com/g2KcTBua4B
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) March 22, 2023
Ohtani's teammates immediately mobbed him after the third out, and Japan had its first WBC title since it went back-to-back in the first two tournaments in 2006 and 2009.
World Baseball Classic MVP: Shohei Ohtani (obviously)
Ohtani's final stats in Japan's seven wins: .435/.606/.739 with four doubles and a home run at the plate and a 1.86 ERA with 11 strikeouts in 9.2 innings on the mound, plus a save.
No player hit a ball harder or threw a pitch harder than him in the entire tournament.
That performance earned Ohtani the World Baseball Classic MVP award, as well as two spots on the All-WBC team as a designated hitter and pitcher. Joining him was teammate Masataka Yoshida in the outfield, while Trout and shortstop Trea Turner represented Team USA.
Japan's championship obviously came about through more than one player, though, as seen in the earlier innings, when Japan's lineup took the lead while its pitching staff shut down the vaunted Team USA lineup.
The game began with each team's recent hero continuing his success at the plate. Turner, who hit the game-winning grand slam against Venezuela and homered twice in the blowout of Cuba, homered in the second inning to give the U.S. an initial 1-0 lead.
Japan's Munetaka Murakami, who hit the walk-off double to end a classic against Mexico on Monday, responded a half-inning later with a game-tying solo home run to the upper deck of LoanDepot Park. Japan continued to rally that inning and finished the frame with a 2-1 lead, then added another run on a homer by Kazuma Okamoto.
Kyle Schwarber got Team USA back within a run in the eighth by clobbering a solo homer off of Yu Darvish, but all that did in the end was heighten the drama for when Ohtani faced Trout.
Japan's pitching staff came up big before Ohtani
The U.S. entered the final as the favorite over Japan. One reason for that was the timing of Japan's pitching, which used phenom Roki Sasaki and back-to-back Pacific League MVP Yoshinobu Yamamoto in the semifinal Monday against Mexico.
Rather than start established MLB pitchers Ohtani or Darvish, Japan opted to go with former NPB All-Star Shota Imanaga. After his exit following the Turner homer, the Japanese bullpen didn't allow a run until after Darvish took the mound in the eighth.
Shosei Togo, Hiroto Takahashi, Hiromi Itoh and Taisei Ota — all NPB All-Stars, save for the flamethrower Takahashi — combined to throw five scoreless innings with five strikeouts and three hits allowed. Given that Team USA's greatest strength was a lineup featuring the likes of Betts, Trout, Turner, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and several more MLB All-Stars, that performance made a strong case for the talent level of NPB — in case the second coming of Babe Ruth wasn't enough.