Shohei Ohtani stepped into the batter’s box Monday night for the most important at-bat of his baseball career since leaving his home country to play in the major leagues and wasted no time.
LoanDepot was the ninth entry in the park. Japan, trailing by one run, fell three outs to suffer a crushing upset and disappointing elimination at the hands of Mexico in the World Baseball Classic semifinals.
At 60 feet, 6 inches, was St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Giovanny Gallegos, Mexico’s top reliever. The first pitch was an 88 mph changeup, off the plate, surely the ball. It didn’t matter. Ohtani laced the pitch into the right-center field gap with a double that gave Japan a 6-5 lead. He screamed from second base to his dugout. The moment had changed.
Masataka Yoshida followed with a walk before Munetaka Murakami, who in a plate appearance in his first four at-bats with three strikeouts, smashed a 1-1 fastball over the wall in center field. Ohtani and Ukyo Shuto homered to score, giving Japan a thrilling victory to set up the final between baseball’s two powerhouses.
Team USA, the tournament champion, awaits Tuesday night.
The impromptu result halted a surprise run from Mexico led by the star left-back.
Randy Arozarena came out of Mexico City on Monday with a sombrero on his head and cowboy boots on his feet. He walked out to the television down in right field, where Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz took selfies with him. He then ran the other way and went after Pedro Martinez on live TV.
From there, he ran out onto the field. It was time to throw the batting practice balls: sombrero, boots and all. WBC was Arozarena’s show. Against Japan on Monday, LoanDepot Park was home to 35,933 fans.
The Cuban Arozarena, who became a Mexican citizen last year to play in this tournament, continued his role in his adopted country.
On Monday, he stole a solo home run by Kazuma Okamoto into left field in the fifth inning. Two innings later, he hit a pair of singles. He then scored on Alex Verdugo’s double.
His signature celebration — a dramatic fold of his arms and a pose — when he made a steal over the left-field wall and doubled into second base. He signed autographs in left field during pitch changes. It made everything look effortless.
Mexico left fielder Randy Arozarena catches a fly ball hit by Japan’s Kensuke Kondoh in the fifth inning of the World Baseball Classic semifinal game in Miami on Monday.
(Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)
At the end of the night, he tied the record for most doubles in a WBC with six. His seven extra-base hits are tied for second. He went nine for 20 (.450) with nine RBIs and a 1.507 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the tournament.
All eyes were initially on Japan’s Roki Sasaki. Considered by some evaluators to be the best pitcher in the world not yet in the major leagues, the 21-year-old Sasaki has an elite fastball and plenty of potential.
Last April, he pitched a perfect game with 19 strikeouts in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League—considered the second best league in the world. He followed that up with eight more perfect innings and 14 strikeouts before being removed from safety.
It came as advertised on Monday morning. His first pitch was a 101 mph fastball to Aroza. He got Arozara out later in the day with a 102 mph fastball down the middle.
Sasaki kept his speed in the triple digits, but he wasn’t untouchable. After two straight home runs by Rowdy Tellez and Isaac Paredes, Luis Urías put Mexico on the board in the first with a three-run home run over the left field wall.
The blast gave Patrick Sandoval a cushion. The Angels lefty started the night with two hits. A third straight was not going to come easily — Ohtani was at the plate. Sandoval said the two Angels teammates talked on the field Sunday between their respective teams’ workouts. The upcoming matchup was not discussed.
“It’s going to be fun to face him,” Sandoval said. “I’m waiting.”
The first brawl went to a full count before Sandoval took the superstar out looking for a slider. Sandoval tapped his glove with excitement. He held Japan scoreless over 4 ⅓ innings. He struck out six, walked one and threw 66 innings.
Japan, however, tied the score in the seventh inning when Yoshida, who signed a $90 million contract with the Boston Red Sox in the offseason, hit a three-run home run off left fielder JoJo Romero down the right field line.
Arozarena ignited Mexico’s response in the eighth inning with a one-out double. Verdugo followed with his double to give Mexico the lead. Three batters later, Paredes slid a ground ball to left to give Mexico a 5-3 lead.
But it wasn’t enough. Ohtani needed just one pitch to change Japan’s fortunes.