Shohei Ohtani strikes out Mike Trout to lead Japan to World Baseball Classic title

MIAMI — Baseball’s opening day is March 30, but Shohei Ohtani’s MVP-winning performance in Japan’s 3-2 championship game victory over the United States in the World Baseball Classic left little doubt what the MLB season’s most compelling story line will be.

It will be all about Sho-Time, all of the time.

What he has done, what he will do and where he will do it in the future.

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Next Thursday against the A’s in Oakland, Ohtani will begin his sixth season with the Los Angeles Angels. The 28-year-old two-time All-Star hasn’t come close to experiencing in Anaheim the exultation he felt in leading the Japanese to their record third WBC title.

Along the way, no one hit a ball harder than Ohtani did with a 118.7-mph double. He crushed a 448-foot home run, matching the longest hit in the tournament. He threw the fastest pitch over the two-week competition, his fastball reaching 102 mph.

And Tuesday night at loanDepot Park, he did something none of us has ever seen.

Ohtani jogged from the dugout to the bullpen to prepare for the signature moment of the tournament, one that had been discussed for months but no one had dared imagine would actually unfold the way it did — a last-out showdown between Ohtani and Angels teammate Mike Trout. It was a matchup of the best baseball player on the planet against Captain America, the consensus best player in the major leagues over the past decade.

Ohtani began the game as Japan’s designated hitter. He ended it as DH and closer, a combination beyond the scope of mere mortals but one that Ohtani never doubted he could do.

Japanese manager Hideki Kuriyama said he fretted about how he could arrange for Ohtani to warm up while he still had obligations to hit.

“Shohei said, ‘Oh, I’ll do that myself. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it,’” Kuriyama said. “So that’s just like Shohei.”

Ohtani entered the game in the bottom of the ninth inning throwing 100-mph fastballs, but he walked the first batter of the inning, Jeff McNeil, on a full count. The U.S. had the tying run on base with three consecutive MVPs due to hit: Mookie Betts, Trout and Paul Goldschmidt.

Ohtani induced Betts to roll into a double play and then buried Trout with a sweeping full-count slider. The game ended with Goldschmidt on deck.

The sweep on Ohtani’s slider was measured as having 19 inches of break.

“The last pitch he threw, there’s not a hitter alive that’s going to hit that pitch,” Angels manager Phil Nevin told the Orange County Register.

“He won Round One,” Trout conceded after The Strikeout Heard Round the World which prompted Ohtani to hurl his glove into the ground, fling his cap into the air and leap into the arms of his teammates.

Team Japan reigned supreme, inspired not only by Ohtani’s performance but also by the gauntlet he threw down in a pregame speech to teammates that reminded them to set aside their awe of Team USA and its great lineup.

“Let’s stop admiring them … if you admire them, you can’t surpass them,” Ohtani said in the Japan clubhouse. “We came here to surpass them, to reach the top. For one day, let’s throw away our admiration for them and just think about winning.”

It was reminiscent of Herb Brooks’ speech to his young U.S. hockey players in Lake Placid before they faced the mighty Soviets in the “Miracle on Ice” game in the 1980 Olympics.

“I believe this is the best moment of my life,” Ohtani said afterward. “... This really proves that Japanese baseball can beat any team in the world.”


Mar 21, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Japan designated hitter and closing pitcher Shohei Ohtani (16) stands with the World Baseball Classic trophy trophy after defeating the USA in the World Baseball Classic at LoanDepot Park. Mandatory Credit: Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

It also was a vivid demonstration of how much Ohtani loves to win. However, since joining the Angels in 2018, he has yet to play for a team that has finished above .500. The club has not reached the postseason since 2014 and has not won a playoff series since 2022, when the franchise won its lone World Series title.

Ohtani is eligible for free agency after the 2023 season. He made it clear in the offseason that he wants to play for a winner, and the coming months will be rife with speculation about the teams lined up to compete in what surely will be the biggest auction in baseball history — unless the Angels induce him to stay and sign him to an extension.

Last weekend, Angels owner Arte Moreno, who reversed course in January and elected to remain as owner after entertaining offers to sell the team, spoke with beat reporters for the first time in three years. He said he has yet to hold contract talks with Ohtani and will be looking for signals from the two-way superstar that he is committed to remaining in Anaheim, much the way Trout did before Moreno gave him a 12-year, $426 million deal in 2019.

“Ohtani has to want to be here too,” Moreno said. “It’s a two-way street. When I started talking to Mike, and I spent a lot of time with Mike, I just said, ‘You have to make a decision. Is this where you want to be? Is this where you want your family to be?’ And when we start sitting down with the agent and Ohtani, he has to figure out if this is where he wants to be.”

Moreno has committed to a 2023 team payroll of $212 million, the largest in franchise history. But with the Houston Astros a perennial power in the American League West, the Texas Rangers much improved and the Seattle Mariners on the rise after tasting the playoffs last season, the Angels are hardly a lock for October. And if they fall out of playoff contention early, there’s always a chance that the Angels would trade him rather than let him walk without getting anything in return after the season.

“We expect to be a playoff contender,” Moreno told Sports Illustrated in an earlier interview. “Everything in our plans putting this team together is about getting to the playoffs. So, I’m not going to sit here and wonder what happens in an outcome we’re not planning for. That would be like a fighter going into the ring and thinking, ‘What if I lose?’ If he does that, he will lose.”

Shohei wins, whether he stays or goes, as long as he stays healthy. It’s hard to even comprehend what the parameters of his contract will look like, whether it comes from Moreno or the Los Angeles Dodgers, or New York Mets owner Steve Cohen or the San Diego Padres.

As for the chances that somewhere on the planet there is another Shohei in the offing?

“All you’ve got to do is just be born to be able to throw a hundred (mph) and hit the ball 500 feet — there’s really not that much going into it,” laughed Lars Nootbaar, the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who played on Team Japan with Ohtani. “He’s able to do stuff that I can’t even dream of doing.”


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