The Michael Jordan of baseball, all sinewy skill and cinematic glamour, pulled into second base with a look we have never seen in his five seasons playing Major League Baseball. The helmet was long gone, dislodged somewhere around first base from the ferocity of speed from his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame. Tufts of his black hair flopped across his forehead. He turned toward his Team Japan dugout, waved his arms with frenzy to coax them into the same excitement he felt, and screamed a long, joyous rally cry.
Shohei Ohtani has never played on a winning team with the Angels. He has finished each of his five seasons at least 10 games out of first place. The most exciting player on the planet and the best thing to happen to baseball in a hundred years finally had a winning moment on U.S. soil Monday night.
In American translation, it was not quite Ohtani’s Craig Ehlo moment. This was the World Baseball Classic, not the World Series. But the winning moment told you everything about what baseball means to Japan and what it would mean for the rest of us to see Ohtani compete for a championship.
“It's been a while since I was playing in like a win or lose game, a playoff atmosphere game,” Ohtani said through his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, when asked to explain his unprecedented display of emotion. “So obviously we couldn't lose and I wanted to get the guys rallied up in the dugout.”
Ohtani started the winning rally with his bat, his legs and his primordial screams. Holding a 5–4 lead, Mexico was three outs away from eliminating Japan. Ohtani was the leadoff batter of the bottom of the ninth against Giovanny Gallegos, the Cardinals closer.
“I knew he was a great pitcher coming in,” Ohtani said. “I had not faced him, but I had to do whatever I can to get on base. That's the only thing that goes on my mind.”
Superheroes do not dally. Ohtani swatted the first pitch, a high changeup, into the gap in right-center field for his double. Eight pitches later, the game was over. Matsataka Yoshida walked. Munetaka Murakami scored Ohtani and Yoshida with a long, ringing double to left-center.
Ohtani celebrated so hard that he had to double over and put both hands on his knees to get some oxygen into his lungs. And then, owing to tradition, Team Japan lined up on the foul line, bowed once to the fans on their side, turned and bowed to those on the other side, and turned once more to bow to the Mexican team in their sorrowful, stunned dugout. Grace and honor just moments after his most exciting win in America.
But wait. There is more. The encore is scheduled for Tuesday night. Team Japan plays Team USA in the WBC championship game. The idea of Ohtani playing against Mike Trout, his teammate and fellow playoff-starved star, is delicious enough. But there is also this: Ohtani just might come out of the bullpen to close the game—while hitting as the DH!
What is unthinkable stateside actually is something already on Ohtani’s resume. In 2016, while DHing for the Fighters in the semifinals of the Climax Series in Japan, Ohtani was told in the fifth inning he might be used to close the game. He did indeed close the clincher. Retired all three batters he faced. Threw the fastest pitch ever recorded in Nippon Pro Baseball (165 kilometers per hour, or 103 mph). Probably catered the postgame spread, too, with some gourmet cooking.
“Actually, my bullpen coach right now was [my] pitching coach at the time,” Ohtani said. “So, he's the one that told [me]. So, I went in the bullpen in the back [to warm up] came into the game.”
Remember, folks. This is a player who is a free agent after this season. One high-ranking team source suggested Ohtani could fetch a $500 million contract. And while the top American-born pitchers are taking the conservative route by throwing with caution in meaningless spring games rather than in the WBC, Ohtani is volunteering to come out of the bullpen while DHing. Love of country and baseball trumps $500 million—this is a tournament in which the winning players take home about $50,000, or less than what Ohtani makes in three innings of regular season work.
“It almost seems like I'm shortchanging him saying ‘once in a generation.’” Team Japan teammate Lars Nootbaar said. “It's ‘lifetime.’ I texted some of my buddies, and obviously, me and Nolan [Arenado] have a pretty close relationship. I talked to him a little bit throughout this thing. But the first day I met [Ohtani] he was great, a super nice guy. That was the first thing that popped out to me was he was so welcoming.
“But then he threw a bullpen. Probably hit a hundred [mph]. And then we went in the cage. He was hitting balls 118 [mph]. First game, hits two home runs. And then I watch him squat 400, 500 pounds. You know, it's just—there's things that you're like, ‘Well, you can't make this up.’ He gets off the squat rack, and then he's joking around. It's inhumane stuff. I've never obviously seen anything like it, and for him to be as humble and as genuine as a guy he is, it's ... he, along with the experience in Japan, has exceeded my expectations as well.”
Baseball will never be complete until Ohtani gets to the postseason. He is that good—that different from every other elite player. It’s not just that Ohtani is a two-way player, a dream created by Hideki Kuriyama, his Team Japan manager and his old manager with the Nippon Ham Fighters. It was Kuriyama who convinced him to sign with the Fighters rather than with a major league team out of high school.
On draft day, when the Fighters picked Ohtani, Kuriyama put on his purple scarf and purple underwear for luck (a factoid which speaks to the Mariana-like depth of Ohtani reportage; purple was the color of Ohtani’s high school). It worked. When Kuriyama first met Ohtani he gave him a black T-shirt with a specially designed image of birds in flight—symbolizing Ohtani’s opportunity to spread his wings—and the words, “Dreams come true.” Kuriyama sold him on becoming a two-way player.
“Travel down a path no one else walked,” Kuriyama told him.
“I thought it would be impossible at first,” Ohtani said when he signed, “but Kuriyama put a lot of thought into it. I would like to do my best to make it into Ichi-gun [first-team] games as both.”
Pitching and hitting is one thing. Dominating at both is insane. Last season Ohtani threw more pitches at 100 mph or more than any American League starter. And he hit more balls 100 mph or more than any designated hitter.
Ohtani put on a hitting display in batting practice Monday night that was so spectacular, fans gave him an ovation when he was done. One after another, he drove baseballs into the upper deck of loanDepot Park—the back rows of the upper deck. These were rainbows of 450 feet and more.
“Yeah, I knew Team Mexico was watching,” Ohtani said, opening a window into his playfulness. “So, I just wanted to kind of send a little message. ‘You leave the ball out there, that's what's going to happen.’”
He was asked where this game ranks in excitement among all those in which he has played.
“I mean, it's definitely up there,” he said. “But I still haven't had time to kind of sit on it. But I mean, it's definitely probably up there in the top two or maybe the number one, but I need some time sit on it.”
The WBC has built a stage in which we have seen Trout and Ohtani more animated on a field than ever before. Tuesday night we get the very best possible encore. Trout vs. Ohtani. USA vs. Japan. The chance to win something here in the states like never before for both.
“Obviously it's a big accomplishment to get to the championship series,” Ohtani said. “But there's a huge difference from being first and second. So I'm going to do all I can to get that first place.”
In Japan, Ohtani is sometimes referred to in terms of nito-ryu, which describes a two-sworded style of samurai fighting. It is a respectful nod not only to his two-way skills as a ballplayer but also to an advance style of fighting. To be considered nito-ryu is to be prepared for anything, to adapt to the changing conditions of the fight. This is Ohtani. We keep asking, “What can Ohtani possibly do next?” He keeps giving us new answers. The WBC championship game is another chance for us to find out what else he brings to the fight.