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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ohtani shines as Japan beats US to win World Baseball Classic


Munetaka Murakami’s solo homer got the scoring started for Japan in its win over the United States in the World Baseball Classic final on Tuesday.

By James Wagner


The matchup that many had dreamed about all along — between two of the world’s baseball powerhouses and two of its very best players in Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout — is exactly what it came down to.


Ohtani, the two-way phenomenon, was Japan’s designated hitter all game and took the mound in the ninth inning with the chance to close out a title. And with a powerful inning that included a six-pitch strikeout of Trout — his Los Angeles Angels teammate — to end it, Ohtani sent Japan into pandemonium.


With the 3-2 win, Japan dethroned the United States on Tuesday at loanDepot Park in Miami and claimed the 2023 World Baseball Classic trophy. The United States, which did not embrace the tournament as quickly as some other countries, won the WBC the last time it was played in 2017.


“This is the best moment in my life,” Ohtani, 28, said afterward through an interpreter. To no one’s surprise, he was named the most valuable player of the tournament for his all-around excellence.


Behind power hitting and stout pitching from a cast of characters that went far beyond just Ohtani, Japan went 7-0 in the quadrennial two-week tournament and further cemented its place as the top country in the relatively short history of this tournament, which began in 2006. In the five editions of the WBC, Japan has now won three times.


Despite a lineup filled with All-Stars and past winners of the MVP award, the United States mustered little against Japan, a team made up mostly of stars from that country’s top professional league, along with some MLB stars like Yu Darvish and Ohtani, who is arguably the game’s best player.


“This really proves that Japanese baseball can beat any team in the world,” said Ohtani, who called American baseball as their benchmark. “It was a very short time, but I really enjoyed playing with my teammates.”


In the bottom of the seventh inning, Ohtani showed off his speed by beating out a throw from United States shortstop Trea Turner to earn a single. And when the inning was over, he jogged over to Japan’s bullpen in left field to warm up his right arm.


Trout, a three-time American League MVP, said he started to see the possibility of their showdown coming together when he saw Ohtani head in that direction after his final at-bat. Ohtani said he had been hoping for it but didn’t think it would actually happen.


“I think every baseball fan wanted to see that,” Trout, 31, said. “I’ve been answering questions about it for a month and a half.”


“Everyone in America thought Shohei and Trout facing off would be ideal,” Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama added. “Watching that made me think of how great baseball is. It’s symbolic of life.”


Meanwhile, Darvish, a longtime major leaguer who pitches for the San Diego Padres, injected drama into the game. Originally lined up to start the final game until a switch the day before, Darvish entered as a reliever in the eighth inning. But United States designated hitter Kyle Schwarber blasted a solo home run into the right field seats to trim the deficit to one run and re-energize the crowd of 36,098.


A small lead, though, was enough for Japan with Ohtani looming as a closer. Ohtani, the ace of the Angels, made his first relief appearance since 2016, when he played for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan.


Before the game, Ohtani addressed his teammates and told them to stop admiring the superstars on the other side.


“If you admire them, you can’t surpass them,” he said, according to reports. “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.”


The United States struck first against Japan in the second inning. Turner, the Philadelphia Phillies shortstop who powered the United States earlier in the tournament, smashed his fifth home run of the WBC. He clobbered a low fastball from Japan starting pitcher Shota Imanaga into the left field seats. The many United States fans in attendance and Turner beamed in the dugout afterward.


But the lead didn’t last long. In the bottom half of the second inning, Japan tied the score when the slugging third baseman Munetaka Murakami destroyed a pitch from United States starting pitcher Merrill Kelly into the upper deck. The home run by Murakami, who set the Japanese single-season record for homers by a native-born player last season, with 56 for the Yakult Swallows, was measured at 432 feet.


Japan’s lineup then chased Kelly from the game with two singles and a walk. A groundout by Lars Nootbaar, a St. Louis Cardinals outfielder whose mother is Japanese, gave the team a 2-1 lead.


In the fourth inning, Japan again displayed its strength at the plate. Facing Kyle Freeland, first baseman Kazuma Okamoto sent a hanging slider over the left-center field wall to extend Japan’s lead to 3-1.


“I’m on top of the world,” Okamoto said afterward. Added Nootbaar, “Playing against maybe the greatest lineup that’s ever been assembled in baseball history makes it sweet that we did it undefeated.”


Then in the later innings came Darvish’s stumble, Schwarber’s blast and the matchup that everyone wanted to see. Kuriyama said he had recently talked to Ohtani about the possibility of relieving. But he said it was difficult to decide when to send Ohtani to the bullpen during the game.


When Ohtani left the bullpen, his uniform pants were dirty from running the bases. He later admitted he was nervous but felt gratitude toward the sport he loves while standing on the mound.


Ohtani fired a 102-mph to the leadoff batter, Jeff McNeil, but walked him. After he got superstar Mookie Betts to hit into a double play, up came Trout. The two made brief eye contact.


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


Ohtani hit 100 mph with his fastball but he fell into a 3-2 count. Then he fired a sweeping slider that Trout missed for the final out. Ohtani bounced off the mound, screamed and tossed his gear aside.


“He won round 1,” said Trout, suggesting Team USA would be back for the next edition of the WBC, which will be held in 2026. Trout’s Angels teammate, and now WBC rival, had the same thought: “I would love to enter again,” Ohtani said.

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