By Ronald Blum/AP Baseball Writer
MIAMI (AP) – Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout had dreamed of this moment, along with millions of fans throughout Japan and the United States: the two biggest stars on the planet, longtime teammates, facing each other at 60 feet, 6 inches, the world title at stake.
Of course, the count went full.
And then Ohtani got Trout to swing under a slider on the outside corner, sealing Japan’s 3-2 win Tuesday night and its first World Baseball Classic title since 2009.
“This is the best moment in my life,” Ohtani said through a translator.
Ohtani, the two-way star who has captivated fans across two continents, was voted MVP of the WBC after batting .435 with one homer, four doubles, eight RBIs and 10 walks while going 2-0 with a save and a 1.86 ERA on the mound, striking out 11 in 9 2/3 innings.
“I think every baseball fan wanted to see that. I’ve been answering questions about it for the last month-and a-half,” said Trout, Ohtani’s Los Angeles Angels teammate since 2018.
“Did you think it was going to end in any other way?”
Watching the eighth and ninth innings unfold, Japan first baseman Kazuma Okamoto was in disbelief.
“I thought it was like a Manga,” he said through an interpreter, referring to a Japanese comic book.
U.S. manager Mark DeRosa savored the matchup – except for the ending.
“I just would have liked to have seen Mike hit a 500-foot homer,” he said.
Ohtani had given a pregame pep talk in Japan’s clubhouse.
“Let’s stop admiring them,” he said, according to a Los Angeles Times translation of the video posted on the website Samurai Japan. “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.”
Japan then joined the Dominican Republic in 2013 as the only unbeaten champions of baseball’s premier national team tournament. The Samurai Warriors went 7-0 and outscored opponents 56-18, reaching the final for the first time since winning the first two WBCs in 2006 and 2009. No other nation has won the title more than once.
Trea Turner put the U.S. ahead in the second against Shota Imanaga (1-0) with his fifth home run of the tournament, tying the WBC record set by South Korea’s Seung Yuop Lee in 2006.
Munetaka Murakami tied the score on the first pitch of the bottom half off Merrill Kelly (0-1) driving an up fastball 432 feet into the right-field upper deck, a 115.1 mph bullet. Japan loaded the bases and Lars Nootbaar, the first non-Japanese-born player to appear for the Samurai Warriors, followed with a run- scoring groundout off Aaron Loup for a 2-1 lead.
Okamoto boosted the lead in the fourth when he sent a flat slider from Kyle Freeland over the wall in left-center for another solo homer. Kyle Schwarber pulled the Americans within a run when he went deep in the eighth off Yu Darvish.
Ohtani was Japan’s designated hitter and first went to the bullpen ahead of the sixth inning. He returned to the dugout and beat out an infield single in the seventh before again walking down the left-field line to Japan’s bullpen and warming up for his third mound appearance of the tournament.
He walked big league batting champion Jeff McNeil to begin the ninth, then got six-time All-Star Mookie Betts to ground into a double play.
That brought up Trout, the U.S. captain, a 10-time All-Star and a three-time MVP.
“I saw him take a big deep breath to try and control his emotions,” DeRosa said. “I can’t even imagine being in that moment, the two best players on the planet locking horns as teammates in that spot.”
Ohtani started with a slider low, then got Trout to swing through a 100 mph fastball. Another fastball sailed outside and Trout missed a 99.8 mph pitch over the middle. A 101.6 offering, the fastest of Ohtani’s 15 pitches, was low and way outside.
Ohtani stepped off the mound and blew on his pitching hand. He went back to a offspeed option, a slider.
Trout grimaced after his futile swing, his 12th strikeout of a tournament in which he hit .296 with one homer and seven RBIs. Ohtani raised both arms and threw his glove, then his cap, as teammates mobbed him.
Ohtani got his second career save, the first since a 2016 playoff game with the Pacific League’s Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. He and Trout had hugged behind the batting cage during pregame workouts, then held their nation’s flag while leading their teams toward home plate in single file during the introductions, Trout down the right-field line and Ohtani in left.
Several thousand fans had arrived hours early to watch Ohtani take batting practice and applauded when he hit a drive off the video board above the second deck in center.
“What he’s doing in the game is what probably 90 percent of the guys in that clubhouse did in Little League or in youth tournaments, and he’s able to pull it off on the biggest stages,” DeRosa said. “He is a unicorn to the sport. I think other guys will try it, but I don’t think they’re going to do it to his level.”
Japan gets $3 million in prize money and the U.S. $1.7 million. Half of each goes to players, the other half to the national baseball federation.
MLB openers are March 30, the same day the season starts in Japan.
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