Shohei Ohtani closes out against Mike Trout as Japan takes on the USA in the WBC final

The two teams, representing the two powerhouses in world baseball, took the field at loanDepot Park on Tuesday night, single file from each outfield corner. The United States came in from right field. Japan was on the way. Each star-studded team was headlined by two of the best players in the world.

Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, the captains, each carried their country’s flags. Three weeks ago, the Angels were teammates in spring training together. They will be together again in Arizona by the end of the week, making final preparations for the Angels’ decisive season. But on Tuesday, they were opponents in the World Baseball Classic, the biggest baseball game of their lives.

The role of the trout for the night was known from the beginning. It was like always. Batting second and playing in the middle field. Ohtani was a different and mysterious story. The star duo was again batting third as Japan’s designated hitter. There was a chance he would come out of the bullpen, however, to play in the outfield. Maybe even against the trout.

It was a bright opportunity. Almost too good to be true. However, it happened in a thrilling 3-2 win for Japan. Ohtani walked out of Japan’s bullpen in left field, his uniform stained from trying to break a double play earlier in the game, after 10:30 p.m. to protect a one-run lead to secure a three-run championship. It was his first relief appearance since 2016. The top of the ninth inning for Team USA included Jeff McNeil, Mookie Betts and Trout.

McNeil started the inning with a seven-pitch walk. The weight of the moment was palpable; McNeil jumped down the line, screaming into the U.S. helmet. But the moment quickly evaporated. Two pitches later, Betts turned into a double play. Suddenly, Team USA was united and got the game the baseball world had been craving.

Ohtani started a fly ball with a slider off the plate. The next four pitches were fastballs. 100 mph, 100 mph, 100 mph, 102 mph. Trout passed the first, took the second for a ball, hit the third and dropped the fourth to bring it into the fray. Total count

The righty went with what he started: an 87 mph slider. This was perfectly placed. Border strike from trout. The three-time AL Most Valuable Player, Hall of Famer with 15 career playoff appearances, hit and missed. Three strikes The game is over. Ohtani tossed his glove and cap to the ground as his teammates ran to mob him.

“Whether I hit a strikeout or struck out, I thought I wanted to throw the types of pitches that wouldn’t leave me with any regrets,” Ohtani said in Japanese on the FS1 broadcast. “He is a great player. I’m glad that somehow I was able to get out.”

Ohtani’s feat sealed a 7-0 unbeaten tournament run for Japan. The country was the first to win the WBC three times. The USA, the tournament champion, finished 5-2. Ohtani was unexpectedly named tournament MVP.

Most of Japan’s eyes were on the game. A popular high school baseball tournament at Osaka’s Koshien Stadium—home of the 50,000-seat Hanshin Tigers—was sparse. Japanese media speculated that it was because people were watching the national team at home. With good reason: 62 million people – almost half of the country’s population – watched Japan beat South Korea in the pool. That number alone was more than any World Series game ever seen. By Tuesday, the hype was bigger.

Team USA was leading the Japanese team long before the tournament started. In August, Japanese manager Hideki Kuriyama traveled to the United States on a recruiting and scouting trip before Ohtani signed with the Angels from the Nippon-Ham Fighters.

Kuriyama wanted to meet potential WBC participants in the majors and learn about American players. Kuriyama found that speed is king here and American punches are dangerous. Along the way, he worked to secure his top roster target: Ohtani, the bi-generational talent Kuriyama has mentored since turning pro.

Ohtani has dominated Major League Baseball over the past two seasons, surpassing all expectations since arriving from Japan while cultivating a respect for competition. He saw Tuesday’s meeting as Japan’s best chance to prove that it remains a top baseball powerhouse.

“They’re the last opponents for the last stage,” he told MLB Network after Japan defeated Mexico in the semifinals on Monday night.

On Tuesday, a few minutes before taking the field, Japan’s most famous athlete, an icon who has yet to celebrate his 30th birthday, stepped up to give a short but poignant speech to his team in the clubhouse.

Pitcher Shohei Ohtani, top center, after Japan beat the United States 3-2 in the title game of the World Baseball Classic on Tuesday night in Miami.

(Marta Lavandier/Associated Press)

“For me, just one thing,” Ohtani said. “Let’s let him admire it. (Paul) Goldschmidt will be at first base; if you look in the center, Mike Trout is there; Mookie Betts is on the outside. There are players that anyone who plays baseball knows.

“For one day… if you admire them, you can’t beat them. We came here to overcome them, to reach the top. For a day, let’s admire them and think about winning.”

Ohtani is credited with helping recruit veteran right-hander Yu Darvish, who made his first WBC appearance in 2009, saving him in the final game before a win over South Korea. The 36-year-old Darvish, the team’s oldest member, chose to be the only major leaguer in Japan’s training camp last month to attend spring training to build camaraderie with the younger players.

Darvish, like Ohtani, was eligible to play Tuesday after playing in the quarterfinals on Thursday. The angles, however, would allow Ohtani, who had never hit on less than five days rest, to throw just one inning, limiting him to relief appearances.

The San Diego Padres, on the other hand, let Darvish play indefinitely. As a result, he was expected to start, but Japan surprisingly chose to start left-hander Shota Imanaga.

“I don’t know the plan at all,” Darvish said before the game. “It all depends on how the game is played.”

Darvish went into the Japanese bullpen in the fifth inning on Tuesday. Ohtani, Japan’s designated hitter, followed before the start of the sixth. The move drew attention. Time was running out for the USA, and the two best pitchers in the world were waiting.

By then, Japan led 3-1. USA’s Trea Turner opened the scoring with another home run—his fifth of the tournament—against Imanga. The five home runs, four of which came in Team USA’s three playoff games, tied a WBC record.

The lead was fleeting. Japan tied it on a solo home run by Munetaka Murakami, who had doubled to beat Mexico in the semifinals the night before, off US starter Merrill Kelly. Later in the inning, after Angels lefty Aaron Loup replaced Kelly, Lars Nootbaar, the first player not born in Japan to play for his national baseball team, gave Japan a 2-1 lead with an RBI hit.

Kazume Okamoto’s solo home run against left fielder Kyle Freeland doubled the lead in the fourth inning. From there, the teams went scoreless through three innings until the eighth when Darvish took the mound.

Darvish’s only experience in a championship game was a disastrous start for the Dodgers in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. He gave up five runs in 1⅔ innings. The Dodgers lost, and they blamed Darvish.

Darvish was shaky again on Tuesday. Kyle Schwarber cut Team USA’s deficit to one when he hit a solo home run in the second inning. Turner then singled. But this time Darvish avoided a disaster. JT Realmuto popped out and Cedric Mullins flew out to end the threat. The Japanese box exploded. The score remained intact for Ohtani.

Ohtani needed 14 pitches to add another unprecedented feat to his ledger. Modern baseball has never seen a talent like him. On Tuesday, with the baseball world watching, he proved it again.

Times columnist Dylan Hernández contributed to this story.

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