Shohei Ohtani emerged from the bullpen and fanned Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout for the final out in a matchup the whole baseball world wanted to see, leading Japan over the defending champions United States 3-2 on Tuesday night for its first World Baseball Classic (WBC) title since 2009.
Ohtani, the two-way star who has captivated fans across two continents, was voted MVP of the WBC and clutched the award against his chest.
Ohtani beat out an infield single in the seventh inning as a designated hitter before walking down the left-field line to Japan’s bullpen to warm up for his third mound appearance of the tournament.
Flashing his 100 miles per hour heat, Ohtani walked big league batting champion Jeff McNeil to begin the ninth before getting Mookie Betts to ground into a double play.
Trout, the US captain and a three-time MVP, then ended the game by striking out on a full-count breaking ball. Ohtani’s only other save was in a Japan postseason playoff game in 2016.
Ohtani batted .435 with one homer, four doubles, eight RBIs and 10 walks as Japan joined the Dominican Republic in 2013 to become the only unbeaten champions of baseball’s premier national team tournament. The 2021 AL MVP was 2-0 with a save and a 1.86 ERA on the mound, striking out 11 in 9 2/3 innings.
Japan 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.
Munetaka Murakami and Kazuma Okamoto homered as Japan built a 3-2 lead.
Trea Turner put the US ahead in the second with his record-tying fifth home run of the tournament and Kyle Schwarber pulled the Americans within a run when he went deep in the eighth off Yu Darvish.
It was the second straight major title for the Japanese, who beat the US 2-0 in Yokohama for the 2021 Olympic gold medal. Japan used top players in that tournament while the US sent released major leaguers and top prospects.
Turner put the US ahead in the second inning with a drive to left against Shota Imanaga (1-0), tying South Korea’s Seung Yuop Lee in 2006 for the most in a WBC. That lit up a sellout crowd of 36,098 – fans were given wristbands with coloured lights that flickered.
Murakami, at 23 already a two-time Central League MVP, tied the score on the first pitch of the bottom half when Merrill Kelly (0-1) elevated a fastball. Murakami drove it at 115.1 miles per hour into the right-field upper deck, 432 feet away.
Murakami’s game-ending double lifted Japan over Mexico 6-5 in Monday night’s semifinal and his third-inning homer off Nick Martinez put Japan ahead in the 2021 gold medal game.
Japan loaded the bases in the second on singles by Okamoto and Sosuke Genda, and a walk to Yuhei Nakamura. 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-centre.
Japan was outhit 9-5 as Imanaga combined with six relievers to hold the US to 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position. The 29-year-old left-hander and Shosei Togo pitched two innings each, Hiroto Takahashi, Hiromi Itoh and Taisei Ota got three outs each, with Ota escaping two-on, no-outs trouble by retiring Trout on a flyout and getting Paul Goldschmidt to ground into a double play.
Trout and Ohtani 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 centre.
Trout hit .296 in the tournament with one homer, seven RBIs and 12 strikeouts.
Japan gets US$3 million in prize money and the Americans US$1.7 million. Half of each goes to players, the other half to the national baseball federation. (AP)