MIAMI — It was the magical matchup everyone in the baseball world wanted to see, a Hollywood script that defied belief.
Shohei Ohtani vs. Mike Trout with the World Baseball Classic title on the line.
Teammate vs. teammate.
MVP vs. MVP.
And with a sellout crowd at loanDepot Park screaming, they saw Ohtani dance off the mound, celebrating on the biggest stage of his career.
Ohtani struck out Trout on a full-count slider, raised his hands to the heavens, and just like that, Japan is the 2023 WBC champion, winning 3-2 over Team USA.
And the legend of Ohtani just added another chapter.
Ohtani, who had never appeared in relief in a major-league game, last doing it in 2016 in Japan, went back and forth three times from the bench to the bullpen.
He came into the game in the ninth, and promptly walked Jeff McNeil. He then induced a double-play grounder Mookie Betts.
And up came Trout.
The three-time MVP worked the count full, swinging and missing at two fastballs in the process. On a 3-2 pitch, Ohtani unleashed a slider that Trout whiffed on.
And Ohtani was absolutely mobbed by his teammates.
Ohtani, named MVP of the World Baseball Classic, gave a passionate speech before the game, telling his team to forget about the names on the back of Team USA’s jersey, ignore their baseball cards – and believe they can win for their country.
“Let’s stop admiring them,’’ Ohtani said. “If you admire them, you can’t surpass them. 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.’’
Well, they did it in a tournament, a game, and a matchup that will be talked about for generations.
Ohtani has never had the opportunity to experience the postseason since joining the Los Angeles Angels in 2018, and Trout has been to the playoffs only once, but this was his magical moment.
“I was just thinking about all the people around the world watching the game,” USA manager Mark DeRosa said of the Trout-Ohtani matchup. “I was like ‘wow, the baseball world’s gonna win tonight regardless.”
Ohtani finished the tournament hitting .435 (10-for-23) with a 1.345 OPS as a hitter and a 1.86 ERA, two win and a save as a pitcher.
Make no mistake about it, even though the WBC title meant much more to Japan, Team USA still badly wanted to win this event.
The Americans certainly had no reason to be ashamed but they were bitterly disappointed leaving the night without gold medals draped around their necks.
“This is kind of our Olympics,’’ said USA slugger Kyle Schwarber, who hit a mammoth upper-deck home run in the eighth inning. “We don’t get that opportunity to really play wherever the Olympics are at. So for us to represent our country and to see the way that the fans have been reacting in our games, this is playoffs before the season even starts.
There was no one on Team USA saying a WBC title would mean more than a World Series championship, but certainly, it meant much more than winning an All-Star Game, or perhaps even an early round postseason series.
“It’s been kind of one of those bucket list items,’’ Schwarber said.
“It’s definitely different from the World Series, but I think it’s special in its own right. That’s something cool as well because this is a completely different experience.
“The beautiful thing is that this can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It doesn’t change the level of how important this is to us.’’
It was a victory for Japan, but really, for the entire baseball world.
“This is something, of course, I have to start thinking about what the baseball world is going to be,’’ Team Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said. “So for the Japanese baseball world, and the Japanese team playing in the United States, it’s something I think that we’re hoping the Japanese young people will think, ‘Yes, I definitely want to play in this environment.'”
It was the greatest advertisement Japan could ever have envisioned.
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