Shohei Ohtani sets up dream Japan-USA matchup in 2023 World Baseball Classic finale

MIAMI — Shohei Ohtani was standing at the entrance of Japan’s clubhouse late Monday night, his heart still racing, his smile still beaming, still is trying to wrap his head around what just happened.

Japan just pulled off one of the most dramatic, fabulous games you’ll ever see, a walk-off 6-5 victory over Mexico, with Ohtani triggering the comeback.

Now, surrounded by a handful of reporters, he was asked what everyone in the baseball world wants to know:

Will he pitch Tuesday night against USA in the World Baseball Classic final, even facing Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout?

Ohtani smiled, was a bit coy, but revealed that if asked, if needed, he indeed will pitch, as well as be Japan’s starting DH.

Considering he needs perhaps 20 minutes or so to warm up, and he may not have ample time to go to the bullpen since he’s already in the game as a hitter, wouldn’t it be much easier just to start?

Ohtani never really answered, offering only that it was a possibility, until Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama ruined the suspense by announcing that 28-year-old left-handed starter Shota Imanaga will be the surprise starter instead of originally scheduled Yu Darvish.

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Shohei Ohtani circles the bases after a three-run home run by Masataka Yoshida against Mexico.

Yet, rest assured, at some point, who knows exactly when, in the game’s most dramatic moment, we will see Ohtani on the mound.

“Mentally, I will be prepared to,’’ Ohtani said, “but obviously, I’ll be DHing, so it’s going to be hard to find that time to get hot in the bullpen.’’

Ohtani says he last pitched in relief in 2016 for the Nippon Ham Fighters, closing out the game to clinch a berth to advance to the Japan Series. He was in the starting lineup as a DH that game, too, he said, and warmed up in between at-bats during the game.

So, yes, he knows he can do it.

This time, though, he will be facing one of the most decorated lineups ever assembled. USA is so deep, so talented, that their best hitter, Trea Turner — with three homers in the last two games — is batting ninth.

“Not only Mike Trout,’’ Ohtani said, “but 1-9, that order, it’s filled with superstars and household names. I’m just excited to face that lineup. It’s a great thing for Japanese baseball.’’

And it’s the perfect time to show the world just what Ohtani, who has never played in a postseason game in the major leagues, can do under the brightest lights.

Ohtani, who’s eligible for free agency after the season, and risking perhaps $500 million simply by playing in the WBC, didn’t come all this way just to get a participation medal.

He’s here to win it all, adding to his credentials as Japan’s greatest treasure, and can’t wait to show the world what he can do on the biggest and grandest stage of his professional career.

Why else would he come out for batting practice Monday, when he normally just takes batting practice in the indoor batting cages, and put on a home run derby that had players gasping, launching balls into the upper deck?

“I knew,’’ Ohtani said, grinning, “Team Mexico was watching. So, I wanted to send a little message.’’

Signed. Sealed. And delivered.

Japan was trailing 3-0 in the seventh inning when Ohtani drew a two-out walk, bringing up Masataka Yoshida, the Boston Red Sox’s prized free-agent acquisition. Yoshida blasted a three-run homer, deep into right field, tying the game.

Japan was trailing again, this time, 5-4 in the ninth, when Ohtani led off with a double into the right-center gap. Ohtani, sprinting to first, yanked off his batting helmet, pulled up to second base, and showed more emotion than anyone has really seen.

He screamed. He threw his hands up in the air once, twice, three times. He flexed his muscles. And yelled to his teammates, “Let’s go!’

“It’s been a while since I’ve played in a win-or-lose game,’’ Ohtani said, “a playoff atmosphere type game. Obviously, we couldn’t lose. So I wanted to get the guys rallied up in the dugout.’’

Said Murakami: “I think he gave us all the power and emotion, the reason why we were able to win.’’

The entire sellout crowd of 35,933 at loanDepot Park sounded like they were yelling with Ohtani, rattling Mexico closer Giovanny Gallegos. He walked Yoshida on five pitches, bringing up Murakami, Japan’s two-time MVP, who had badly struggled this tournament. He was hitting .190 with 11 strikeouts in 21 at-bats, including three strikeouts Monday.

Murakami, who actually thought about bunting, hit Gallego’s 94-mph fastball into the left-center gap. Both runners scored easily, sending an entire country into delirium.

“For me, it was kind of like an out-of-body experience,’’ said Japan outfielder Lars Nootbaar, the first foreign player to play for Japan in the WBC. “Pure joy.’’

Ohtani, when asked whether it was the greatest victory in his career, says he needed time to reflect, but it certainly ranks among the top three, if not the best.

Well, so far.

“Obviously, it’s a big accomplishment to get to the championship series,’’ Ohtani said, “but there’s a huge difference between finishing first or second. So, I’ll do all I can to get that first place.’’

It’s USA vs. Japan.

Ohtani vs. Trout.

The dream baseball matchup everyone wanted all along.

Perhaps the magnitude of the game may not quite resonate to every baseball fan in this country, but for Japan’s baseball-crazed country, it’s the World Series and Super Bowl rolled into one.

Maybe bigger.

“For it to be Team USA versus Japan, and then, obviously, Trout versus Ohtani,’’ Nootbaar said, “I think that’s special. I think it’s good for baseball. I think it’s good that Japan versus the U.S. is going to be in the finals. …

“It’s two countries that love baseball, that are all going to be watching.’’

Considering all the drama this WBC has provided, it may be game that’s talked about for generations.

“I think we can prove, how good Japanese baseball is,’’ Yoshida said, “in the world. I think it’s a great opportunity for us to prove that.

“I’m really looking forward to playing.

“I’m very proud and honored to be able to play this.’’

The baseball world will be watching.

Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale.

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