MIAMI – The script, everyone was talking about the script. Over the past month and a half, Mike Trout has learned all about how to play. He is in the thunder box. Shohei Ohtani on the mound. A perfect fit for the World Baseball Classic. And, with the US and Japan reaching the finals, the perfect result.
The script is sure to please fans. But in games, the script works well only for one page. When it was over, after Ohtani beat Trout and Japan beat the U.S. 3-2, some U.S. players had some choice words about the script. It’s not their happy ending, you know?
Paul Goldschmidt, who was on deck during Trout’s final: “It would have been nice for Trout and I to go back and (Ryan) close it tight.”
Trea Turner, referring to pinch-hitter Jeff McNeill’s walk in the top of the ninth: “When Jeff got on base and Mike hit a two-run homer to win the game, I expected everybody to go bananas, the world. It’s going to end.”
Trout himself: “It didn’t go the way I wanted.”
American soldiers are not merciless in defeat; Quite the contrary. To a man, they spoke glowingly of their WBC experiences, praising the skill of their Japanese opponents. But if they were satisfied, they wouldn’t be. The world’s best players don’t want to write Hollywood results. No, they are burning to compete.
That’s what Trout vs. Ohtani is, what the WBC is all about, what the games are at their core.
Two of the best players in the world, teammates with the perennially disappointing Angels, created a moment for the ages on Tuesday night. Part of that, of course, is the scripted, imagined conflict that pays off. However, the result was more dramatic than the first pitch pop-up. The lasting memory will be how Trout and Ohtani battled to challenge each other’s mastery of the game.
That’s Ali-Brazier in the batter’s box.
Trout admitted, “He won the first round.”
Before the game, Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama gave no indication of how he planned to use Ohtani or Yu Darvish, the other starter ahead of him. Kuriyama, in his nerdy way, tinkered with both pitchers about how to interact, but left the possibility open for either to take the mound.
The manager’s decision to start left-hander Shota Imanaka further heightened the intrigue surrounding Japan’s pitching, considering the American lineup featured four of the game’s best right-handed sluggers. But Imanaka compared the fastballers with reverse splits and carry the Team USA hitters to Max Fried. Darvish, meanwhile, had poor numbers against the Americans’ Trout, Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, going 2-3-4. The plan began to take shape when Imanaka allowed just one run in his two innings on Turner’s leadoff fifth homer of the contest.
Four relievers, each with nasty, unique skills, bridged the gap from Imanaka to Darvish and Ohtani, combining for five scoreless innings. Ohtani ran out of the bullpen twice after the fifth inning, returning to the dugout as his spot in the lineup approached. Since he was Japan’s DH, it was tricky when to warm him up. But as the play built, Kuriyama’s preferred endgame became clear: Darvish eighth, Ohtani ninth.
A tight matchup between Darvish and Kyle Schwarber culminated in a 10-pitch at-bat home run that brought Team USA within one run. Ohtani, at that point, was clear enough to pitch. His last at-bat was in the seventh. He didn’t even get close to hitting eighth, and he told me in his postgame interview on FS1 that the replay at the end of the inning gave him time to walk slowly to the mound.
He last finished in a playoff game in 2016 in Japan. Fox’s John Smoltz, a Hall of Fame pitcher, warned on the broadcast that Ohtani might be overambitious. He certainly looked that way when he sprayed fastballs and walked McNeil to start the ninth.
Three former MVPs, Mookie Betts, Trout and Goldschmidt, were Team USA’s next winners. However, the American rally faded after two pitches. Ohtani retired Betts into a 4-6-3 double play, so when Trout stepped to the plate, he represented both the final out and the tying run.
“When we got that double play, I saw (right fielder Kensuke) Kondo celebrating,” Japan left fielder Lars Knootbar said. “I sat in left field and said, ‘Listen, nice double play, but Mike Trout’s at the plate now. Let’s not go ahead.’
All in the sellout crowd of 36,098 began a confrontation between Ohtani and Trout, and Team USA manager Mark DeRosa saw Trout taking deep breaths, trying to control his emotions. Trout looked at Ohtani, instead without much recognition.
“He’s a competitor, man,” Trout said. “That’s why he’s great.
Ohtani’s first pitch, an 88-mile slider, was a ball. He would later say on MLB Network that the way Trout took the pitch gave him the impression the slugger was expecting something softer. Ohtani seized the moment and started attacking with his fastball.
Trout moved at 100 mph and nodded at the mound as if to say, “Nice pitch.” Ohtani then missed out on 100, a tough pitch to knock Trout out, only to come back with a well-placed 99. But when Ohtani hit a low 101-mph heater past catcher Yuhei Nakamura, the score went up 3-2.
Ohtani threw four straight fastballs. Trout hasn’t shown he can handle the heat. Arenado speculated another fastball was coming because Ohtani didn’t want to walk a second hitter in the inning. Instead, Ohtani threw a beautiful, sweeping slider to Trout for strike three.
“Great pitch,” Arenado said. “If Mike Trout didn’t hit it, I don’t think anyone else did.”
Ohtani yelled in celebration as he took off his hat and glove and bounded the mound. How rare is it for Trout to swing and miss three times in one at-bat? ok, According to Codify BaseballHe has made just 24 of his 6,174 career major-league plate appearances.
Although Trout didn’t say it, Team USA coach Michael Young pointed to a factor that many teams mentioned throughout the tournament: Hitters are still in the midst of spring training, fine-tuning their swings for the regular season.
“I wish Truty wasn’t there in the middle of March so he could be super, super dialed in,” Young said.
Wait, Ohtani isn’t even in mid-March?
“Sure, but his stuff is tearing up in mid-March,” Young said. “He hits 101.”
Ohtani hit the WBC’s hardest ball at 118.7 mph. He combined for the longest homer, 448 feet, and the fastest pitch thrown, 102 mph. For good measure, when he beat out an infield single in the seventh, Statcast measured Borderline elite speed.
Some more numbers:
As a hitter, Ohtani batted .435/.606/.739 with four doubles, one home run and eight RBIs. As a pitcher, he produced a 1.86 ERA with 11 strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings. No one dared to pull an Aaron Judge and challenge him for MVP.
“I stopped pitching when I was 13 because I wasn’t good enough anymore,” Young said. “The f– guy does both in the big leagues.”
Or, as DeRosa put it, “What he’s doing in the game is what 90 percent of the guys in that clubhouse have done in Little League or youth tournaments, and he can pull it off on the biggest stages.”
Still, Ohtani impressed in other ways. At 28, entering his sixth major-league season, he’s starting to show his competitiveness and leadership skills more outwardly.
During batting practice, Ohtani struck outside again Tuesday, something he never does during the regular season, preferring to focus on his mechanics in the batting cage rather than home runs. Earlier in the day, he chose to “send a little message” to the Mexico team. He did the same before the final against Team USA.
“Guys is hitting the scoreboard in batting practice,” Arenado said. “It’s incredible.”
Ohtani delivered a different, more vocal message to his teammates in the clubhouse before the game. Fearing that Japan’s younger players, in particular, would be intimidated by the American stars, he urged the team to take an aggressive approach.
“Let’s stop praising them,” Ohtani said. “…If you admire them, you cannot surpass them. We came to surpass them and reach the top. Someday we will throw away our admiration for them and think of winning.
Japan did, and delivered a generally competent and immaculate performance. In the end, everything falls into place for Ohtani to face Trout, a story as neat as someone writing a script that the baseball gods always tease.
“I don’t expect him to be the last batter of the game,” Ohtani said on FS1. “I thought it was a possibility, but I couldn’t believe he was the last batter of the game.”
Team Japan first baseman Kazuma Okamoto said, “It was like a manga, like a comic book,” with only one difference.
In comic books, characters are fictional. In the WBC’s final row, they couldn’t have been more real.
(Top image: Eric Espada/Getty Images)