MIAMI — Hideki Kuriyama, the courtly manager of Samurai Japan, was determinedly coy the last few days when asked if Shohei Ohtani would pitch in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic against the United States on Tuesday night.
“It is not a zero chance,” was his standard answer.
But Kuriyama, who spent some time working in the media before managing Ohtani with the Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan, knows a great story when he sees one.
He called on Ohtani to protect a one-run lead in the ninth inning. In what can be safely labeled one of the most memorable moments in baseball history, Ohtani struck out Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout to end the game and send the Japanese players running to the mound after a 3-2 victory.
Trout worked the count full before swinging through a slider on the outside corner. It was Japan’s third WBC title in five events, the first since 2009.
“I didn’t want to make any regrets,” Ohtani said. “I wanted to make my best pitch.”
Ohtani started Trout with a slider then threw four fastballs at an average velocity of 100.3 miles per hour. He then went back to the slider.
“As a baseball fan, everybody wanted to see it,” Trout said. “He won Round 1.”
Kuriyama used seven pitchers, none for more than two innings. Team USA, which averaged 8.2 runs in its first six games of the tournament, scored on home runs by Trea Turner (second inning) and Kyle Schwarber (eighth).
Ohtani jogged back and forth from the dugout to the bullpen several times. In the seventh, he warmed up during the top of the inning and then came back to take his turn at bat and beat out an infield single to the right side.
When was the last time you saw that?
Ohtani, who had not pitched in relief since 2016, pitched 9 innings in the tournament and allowed two runs while striking out 11. He was 10 of 23 at the plate with five extra-base hits and eight RBIs and was, of course, named Most Valuable Player.
“I was hoping it would end a little bit different with Mike popping one,” Team USA manager Mark DeRosa said. “But the baseball world won tonight.”
The Angels play four games against the Red Sox at Fenway Park from April 14-17. If you haven’t yet seen Ohtani play in person, buy a ticket.
Go with one of your baseball friends. Make it a family trip. Call your college roommates.
Don’t run the risk of saying you lived the age of Ohtani and only saw him on television. He’s that incredible.
When Ohtani emerged from the dugout to take batting practice before the game, the fans ringing the field raised their phones to record his presence.
Ohtani went behind the batting cage to pose for a photo with Trout. When it was his turn to hit, Ohtani jogged to the plate and hit three consecutive pitches into the upper deck in right field, sending fans scrambling for the balls as players from both teams watched.
The crowd applauded when Ohtani finished his round. First pitch wasn’t for another two hours and he already had created a spectacle.
My grandfather used to tell a story about seeing Ted Williams walking through Kenmore Square and a trail of people following behind the greatest hitter who ever lived. They just wanted to share his space, if even for just a few moments.
That’s what attending the WBC felt like. There’s a visceral aspect to watching Ohtani play in person, whether it’s seeing him line a double to the gap or dot the corner of the plate with a 100-m.p.h. fastball.
On Monday night, with Japan down by a run against Mexico in the ninth inning, Ohtani led off with a double. He turned to his dugout and raised his arms while shouting, exhorting his teammates to follow his lead.
“He gave us all the power and emotion,” Kuriyama said.
Nine pitches later, Japan won the game. Red Sox left fielder Masataka Yoshida, who was named to the all-tournament team, drew a walk and Munetaka Murakami slammed a two-run double off the wall in center.
These last two days are why he’s a must-watch. Where Ohtani will rank in baseball history is to be further determined. But it could be on the same level as Williams and the other icons of decades past.
“It’s almost seems like I’m shortchanging him saying once in a generation. It’s lifetime,” said Lars Nootbaar, the Cardinals outfielder who fit in so well with Team Japan.
“The first day I met him he was great, a super nice guy. That was the first thing that popped out to me was he was so welcoming.
“But then he threw a bullpen, probably hit 100 [m.p.h.]. Then we went in the cage. He was hitting balls 118 [m.p.h.], First game, hits two home runs, and then I watch him squat 400, 500 pounds. You can’t make this up.”
That’s a player you’ll want to tell your grandkids you saw in person.