Shohei Ohtani, Japan rally to beat Mexico and advance to World Baseball Classic final
Shohei Ohtani stepped into the batter’s box for the most important moment of his baseball career since leaving his country to play in the major leagues and didn’t waste any time.
It was the ninth inning at LoanDepot Park on Monday night. Japan, trailing by a run, was three outs from a massive upset in the World Baseball Classic semifinals at the hands of Mexico.
Standing on the mound was St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Giovanny Gallegos, Mexico’s best reliever. The first pitch was an 88-mph changeup away, off the plate, surely a ball. It didn’t matter. Ohtani hooked the pitch into the right-center-field gap for a double. He raised his arms and screamed to his dugout from second base. The momentum had shifted.
“It’s been a while since I was playing in a win-or-lose game,” Ohtani said through an interpreter. “Obviously, we couldn’t lose and I wanted to get the guys rallied up in the dugout.”
Masataka Yoshida followed with a walk before Munetaka Murakami, who entered the plate appearance with three strikeouts in his first four at-bats, smashed a fastball to the wall in center field. Ohtani and pinch runner Ukyo Shuto raced around to score, giving Japan a thrilling, 6-5 comeback victory to set up a championship game between two baseball powers.
It will be Japan, the only country to win the WBC twice, against the United States, the defending tournament champion, for the title Tuesday night. And it will be Ohtani against fellow Angels superstar Mike Trout.
“Not only Mike Trout,” Ohtani said with a smile, “but one through nine in that order is filled with superstars, household names, and I’m just excited to face that lineup and to do great things for Japanese baseball.”
Japan announced Shota Imanaga will start on the mound instead of Yu Darvish, the veteran major leaguer who is available Tuesday on four days' rest. Right-hander Merrill Kelly will start for Team USA.
If Ohtani pitches, it'll be as a reliever, perhaps to close the game. Ohtani is also on four days' rest after throwing 71 pitches in 4 2/3 innings against Italy in the quarterfinals Thursday in Tokyo.
“I have to see the condition of his body,” Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said. “Like I said before the game, the possibility isn’t zero.”
Kuriyama was Ohtani’s manager the last time the two-way superstar appeared in a game as a reliever in October 2016. They were together with the Nippon-Ham Fighters, one win away from advancing to the Japan Series. The Fighters, holding a three-run lead against the SoftBank Hawks, needed three outs. Kuriyama gave the ball to Ohtani, who began the game as the designated hitter. He delivered a perfect inning with two strikeouts.
“Mentally, I will be prepared to throw,” Ohtani said. “Obviously, I’m DH’ing so it’s going to be hard to find the time to get hot in the bullpen. Before all that, it’s going to be DH’ing, so I’ll be focusing on that and trying to get some runs on the board.”
Ohtani didn’t wait until the game started to put on a show. He delivered one during batting practice, blasting several balls to the back of the second deck beyond the right-field wall to gasps from onlookers. One hit bounced off the scoreboard in right-center field. Fans clapped when he finished.
“I knew Mexico was watching,” Ohtani said.
Randy Arozarena was the main attraction on the other side. Mexico’s left fielder emerged from the dugout before the game wearing a sombrero and cowboy boots. He went out to the television set down the right-field line where Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz took selfies with him. He then jogged to the other side and snuck up behind Pedro Martínez on live television.
From there, he ran out onto the field. It was time to shag batting practice balls — sombrero, boots, and all. The WBC had been Arozarena’s show.
Arozarena, a Cuba native who became a Mexican citizen last year to play in this tournament, signed autographs in left field during pitching changes. He delivered his signature celebration — a dramatic folding of his arms and a pose — at the left field wall when he robbed a home run in the fifth inning and at second base when he doubled in the seventh with the score tied.
He then scored the go-ahead run on Alex Verdugo’s double. Three batters later, Isaac Paredes slipped a groundball through the left side to give Mexico a 5-3 lead. Arozarena went nine for 20 (.450) with six doubles, nine RBIs, and a 1.507 OPS in the tournament, solidifying his reputation as a big-game performer after a historic run for the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2020 postseason.
"Randy was incredible today,” Mexico manager Benji Gil said. “He gave us the opportunity to come back.”
Once the game started, all eyes were initially on Japan starting pitcher Roki Sasaki. Considered by some evaluators as the best pitcher in the world not already in the major leagues, the 21-year-old Sasaki boasts an elite fastball and vast potential.
Last April, he threw a perfect game with 19 strikeouts in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league — considered the second-best league in the world. He followed it up with eight more perfect innings and 14 strikeouts before being pulled out of precaution.
He came as advertised early Monday. His first pitch was a 101-mph fastball to Arozarena. He later put away Arozarena with a 102-mph fastball down the middle.
Sasaki maintained his velocity in triple digits, but he wasn’t untouchable. After consecutive two-out softly hit singles from Rowdy Tellez and Paredes, Luis Urías put Mexico on the board first with a three-run home run over the left field wall.
The blast gave Patrick Sandoval a cushion. The Angels left-hander had begun his night with two strikeouts. A third straight would not come easy — Ohtani was at the plate. The clash went to a full count before Sandoval struck out the superstar looking at a slider. Sandoval pounded his glove with excitement. He went on to hold Japan scoreless over 4 1/3 innings. He struck out six, walked one, and threw 66 pitches.
“He obviously pitched really great and put up zeroes,” Ohtani said. “We really wanted to score first and not put him in a comfortable spot on the mound but we couldn’t do that.”
Japan evened the score in the seventh inning when Yoshida, who signed a $90 million contract with the Boston Red Sox over the offseason, hit a three-run home run off left-hander JoJo Romero down the right-field line.
Japan added another run in the eighth inning, halving the deficit and setting the stage for Ohtani. All the world’s best player needed was one pitch to change Japan’s fortunes.
“Obviously it's a big accomplishment to get to the championship series," Ohtani said, "but there's a huge difference from being in first and second, so I’m going to do all I can to get that first place.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.