MIAMI – So, let’s get this straight. Shohei Ohtani agreed to play for Japan knowing he would risk injury and a $500 million free-agent contract. And now, after showing the most emotion he’s ever seen, at least on this continent, isn’t he going to pitch against Team USA in the finals of the World Baseball Classic?
Not buying it.
Ohtani showed just how invested he is in Team Japan during Monday night’s semifinal, throwing his arms over his head three times and bending toward the dugout to yell after leading off the ninth inning with a first-pitch double. He unleashed pure joy after Munedaka Murakami’s two-run, walkoff double, jumping with his teammates and bouncing back to celebrate Japan’s wild 6-5 victory over Mexico.
The game was another WBC classic, the fourth unforgettable contest at Lone Depot Park in seven days. Just before I interviewed Ohtani on FS1, he was bent over with his hands on his knees, still not breathing.
“Whenever you see Shohei’s emotions, you know it’s real,” the Japan outfielder said Lars Nootbar said on the FS1 postgame show. “It gets everybody fired up. When one guy with a cool demeanor gets fired, it lights a fire under everybody.
So now comes the intrigue: Will Ohtani play against Team USA in Tuesday night’s final?
Japanese manager Hideki Kuriyama was tight-lipped about his plans, saying he would need to check on Ohtani’s fitness but admitting “it’s not a zero chance”. “Mentally, I’ll be ready to throw, but obviously I’ll be DHing, so it’s going to be hard to find time to warm up in the bullpen,” Ohtani said through his translator Ippi Mizuhara.
What about getting started? That would be the most logical use of Ohtani, allowing him to stay in his routine and face the top four right-handed sluggers in the American lineup — Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. But Ohtani answered the question about opening the game in English during his seven-minute, post-game interview with American reporters.
“Maybe not,” he laughed.
Japan will instead start left-hander Shoda Imanaka, an intriguing choice against Team USA’s right-handed mashers that include Pete Alonso, Tim Anderson and the red-hot Trey Turner. Righty Yu Darvish will likely get relief, and maybe Ohtani will be shut down. He remembers the last time he did that in 2016 in a game that introduced his Japanese team Nippon-Ham Fighters to the Japan Series.
Team Japan bullpen coach Kazuyuki Atsuzawa, the Fighters’ pitching coach at the time, warned Ohtani that he might pitch in the fifth inning. Ohtani, who serves as the designated hitter, said he took one at-bat, went “in the back” into a bullpen to warm up, and came into the game with another at-bat. He It topped 100 mph five times and hit the 102 twice. Sounds crazy. Looks like Ohtani.
The Angels’ opinion of Ohtani pitching in the Finals is unknown; Neither general manager Perry Minassian nor manager Phil Nevin responded to text messages Monday night. But what are the angels going to do, say no? Owner Arte Moreno, who says he’s willing to jump the luxury line for the first time to keep Ohtani, should instruct his baseball men to avoid their two-way superstar, saying, “Sorry, we don’t want you to go all out. For your country.”
Ohtani had an interesting answer when asked why he showed so much interest after his third straight double after starting the evening 0-for-2.
“It’s been a while since I’ve played in a win-lose game, a playoff-atmosphere game,” he said. “Obviously we’re unbeatable and I wanted to rally the guys in the dugout.”
The Angels, who have had five straight losing seasons with Ohtani and seven straight overall, can explain that however they want. Against Mexico, American fans finally got to see Ohtani perform under playoff-type pressure, watching his Angels teammate Mike Trout play meaningful games for Team USA.
Ohtani never faced Cardinals right-hander Giovani Gallegos, who had Mexico’s lead in the ninth. At some point, Knudbar heard Ohtani say that he had made up his mind that he was going to go on base. Noodbar thought to himself, “Man, I wish I could get my mind together and reach the platform even in that situation.”
Gallegos threw the first pitch changeup. Ohtani, looking for something in the zone, drilled the pitch into right-center. Good spot: Ohtani smartly avoided Mexico left fielder Randy Arosarena, who made five putouts in the final five innings, including a home run steal by Kazuma Okamoto.
“We didn’t have the luck to hit it in that direction,” Ohtani deadpanned. “He made great plays on defense. I was happy to be able to pull the ball rather than hit it to him.
On this wonderful night it went.
Japan trailed 3-0 with a two-out, three-run homer by Brewers’ Luis Urias off Rogi Sasaki in the fourth. The Japanese offense started the night 1-for-10 with runners on base. But the Red Sox’s Masataka Yoshida, 9-for-19 with 13 RBIs in the contest, ended the drought with two outs in the seventh against Cardinals lefty JoJo Romero. A right-field foul shot into the pole.
Mexico then scored twice in the eighth. Japan scored a run in the bottom half. The margin was one when Ohtani was in the ninth. As always with Ohtani, anything seemed possible. During batting practice, he put on a tremendous display of power, repeatedly hitting balls into the second deck in right and center field.
“I know the Mexico team is watching, so I wanted to send a little message,” Ohtani said. “If you drop a ball, that’s what happens.”
Trash talk from Ohtani? Now that’s a different matter. But Ohtani, 9-for-20 with five extra-base hits as his country tries to win its third WBC title, is clearly caught up in Japan’s 6-0 run, brimming with confidence and charisma. Since the event’s inception in 2006, no other country has won both.
Which brings us to the final against Team USA, and the idea that Japan shouldn’t use Ohtani in a close game, as he finished fourth in the American League Cy Young voting as a pitcher last season.
Sasaki and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who pitched 7 1/3 innings against Mexico, are Japan’s two best pitchers ahead of Darvish and Ohtani in preparation for the regular season. Kuriyama, the manager of the Japan team, may not be able to direct the game without using some of his small hands. Team USA is expected to start Meryl Kelly, with all of its top relievers available.
This good match can only go one way MLB Network’s John Paul Morosi suggested on Twitter: Ohtani comes out of the bullpen to face Trout in the ninth.
The final moment of the finale. Who says no?
(Photo: Eric Espada / Getty Images)