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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Baseball’s unicorn made the WBC ‘real’


Shohei Ohtani did it all for Japan in this year’s World Baseball Classic, starring as a hitter and a starting pitcher, and closing out the final game as a reliever.

By Tyler Kepner


He strode to the mound with purpose, 6-foot-4 and full of muscle, a relief pitcher unlike any other. Fresh from the bullpen, his uniform was already caked in dirt. Shohei Ohtani had put in a full day’s work by the ninth inning of the World Baseball Classic final Tuesday, coming to bat four times, and now he was going to pitch.


This is how greatness looks, and the setting was appropriate: a ballpark on the site of the old Orange Bowl in Miami, where Joe Namath delivered on his guarantee to win the Super Bowl for the New York Jets in 1969.


That event was just three years old then, and Namath’s heroics helped establish it as a national spectacle. This was the fifth World Baseball Classic and the first with baseball’s superpowers, Japan and the United States, together at the end. The tournament, it is safe to say, is no longer taking off. It is already in orbit.


“This thing is real — the WBC’s real,” said Mark DeRosa, the U.S. manager. “The whole world got to see Ohtani come in, big spot, battling. It’s kind of how it was scripted.”


Yet the 36,098 fans here Tuesday — part of a record crowd of 1,306,414 for the games — could not have known that the finale would follow such a dreamy script. In baseball, every hitter waits his turn; you cannot draw up a game-ending try for the superstar.


But with Ohtani needing to protect a 3-2 lead, this challenge awaited: the reigning major league batting champion, Jeff McNeil, and then three recent winners of the Most Valuable Player Award: Mookie Betts, Mike Trout and, potentially, Paul Goldschmidt.


Ohtani said later that he thought his heart might burst from his chest. He walked McNeil but then did just what the world expected. After a double play ground out by Betts, Ohtani pumped 100-mph fastballs past Trout, his teammate on the Los Angeles Angels, then struck him out on a sweeping slider. Game over.


“I believe this is the best moment in my life,” Ohtani said through an interpreter, adding later, “I happened to be able to get the MVP, but this really proves that Japanese baseball can beat any team in the world.”


Six other stingy pitchers preceded Ohtani to the mound, and he did not have one of Japan’s two home runs Tuesday. But nobody in this WBC hit a ball harder than Ohtani (a double against the Czech Republic at 118.7 mph). Nobody threw a pitch harder (a 102-mph fastball against Italy). Nobody hit a longer home run (448 feet against Australia).


Overall, Ohtani batted .435 with a .606 on-base percentage and a .739 slugging percentage. He had four doubles and a homer, and earned his last hit, in the seventh inning Tuesday, by beating out an infield grounder. As a pitcher, he worked 9 2/3 innings, striking out 11 with a 1.86 earned run average.


“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,” DeRosa said. “He is a unicorn to the sport.”


Indeed, as remarkable as Ohtani has been, he has not inspired a wave of two-way players; the preparation required to excel at both disciplines is simply overwhelming. Others may try, DeRosa said, but few — if any — will ever succeed like this.


“All you’ve got to do is just be born to be able to throw a hundred and hit the ball 500 feet — there’s really not that much going into it,” said the St. Louis Cardinals’ Lars Nootbaar, Japan’s leadoff hitter, laughing. “But, no, he’s exceeded all of my expectations. He’s able to do stuff that I can’t even dream of doing. He’s so diligent and he works so hard and he’s so meticulous about how he goes about his business that it’s not a surprise.”


Ohtani, 28, was so eager to prove himself in Major League Baseball that he left Japan at age 23, in 2017. Because he had not yet turned 25, Ohtani was bound by strict international signing rules that limited his bonus. He chose the Angels, who have never had a winning season with him and may lose him in free agency after this season.


A record contract — from someone — is clearly coming soon for Ohtani. After winning an MVP in 2021, he did something unprecedented last season, becoming the first player with enough plate appearances (666) and innings (166) to qualify for both the batting title and the ERA title in the same season.


In other words, Ohtani was the game’s first full-time two-way player — and he excelled, hitting .273 with 34 homers and going 15-9 with a 2.33 ERA. Even Babe Ruth never hit and pitched in the same season, in the same volume, as Ohtani.


“He’s doing something nobody has done in the past,” first baseman Kazuma Okamoto, who homered on Tuesday, said through an interpreter. “He’s somebody we need to chase and go after, but he’s doing something impossible, you know? So he just keeps us motivated to catch up with him.”


If his teammates needed any more motivation Tuesday, Ohtani gave it in a pregame speech. Standing in the middle of the home clubhouse, Ohtani told the players to stop admiring their U.S. counterparts.


“If you admire them, you can’t surpass them,” he told them. “We came here to surpass them, to reach the top.”


Hours later, after the celebration and the medal ceremony and rounds of television interviews, Ohtani explained at his news conference the meaning of his message.


“We want to respect, of course, American baseball, so we do,” he said through an interpreter. “So just looking at the great lineup of great players makes us feel like — how do I say that? I mean, obviously, we have respect, but at the same time, it looks like we might be beaten down. So just forget about those kinds of feelings. We’re just even. We have to just beat ‘em.”


Now they have, with the third championship for Japan and first since 2009. Soon Ohtani will be back in Tempe, Arizona, in spring training with the Angels and Trout, a three-time MVP, who said he never had more fun playing baseball than he did at this WBC.


There was no shame in silver, after all, not on a night like this. In Ohtani, Trout was beaten by the one player in the world who deserved a gold medal even more than he did.


“He’s a competitor, man,” Trout said. “That’s why he’s the best.”

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