Freeze the moment in the snow globe of your mind. No better ending to no better tournament could have been hand-crafted than the tableau under the dome of loanDepot Park. Shohei Ohtani, his pants caked with dirt from a night of hitting, running and sliding as the DH for Team Japan, pitching to Mike Trout of Team USA with two outs and a full count in the ninth inning of a one-run game for the World Baseball Classic championship.
Even the home plate umpire, Lance Barksdale, acknowledged the serendipity of the moment.
“Of course,” he said. “These are the times when you feel blessed just to be a part of it. I did recognize the moment. It was just a blessing.”
Barksdale may have had the best view, but the moment belongs to us all no matter where or how we took it in. Today, tomorrow, a year from now or a generation from now, when you want to remember why Ohtani is unlike any ballplayer on the planet, or to ask yourself where on this earth baseball is most embedded in the circulatory system of a nation, pull out that snow globe, give it a gentle shake and you will remember why Japan is the WBC champion.
No player can do what Ohtani can do. When Trout stepped in to hit against Ohtani, they made eye contact with one another and made the slightest of nods.
“Yeah, I looked at him,” Trout said. “He's a competitor man. And, you know, that's why he is the best, you know. He likes to compete and you can't take that away from him.”
Said USA manager Mark DeRosa, “I saw [Trout] take a big deep breath to try and control his emotions.”
The pitches came at Trout with a ferocity that belied the fact that Ohtani had exerted himself all night, once beating out an infield hit and twice going back and forth to the bullpen between at-bats to ready his arm. The radar gun readings told the story of his intent: 88, 100, 99, 99, 101 and then, at the full count denouement, a vicious 87 mph sweeping slider. Trout swung. He made no contact.
“I’m glad that it came down to the pitcher and the hitter deciding it,” said Barksdale, “and not a call.”
The ending fit. Japan won, 3–2, capping an undefeated run through the tournament with an artisanal style of baseball. Team Japan outscored its opponents, 56–18. Their hitters walked more than they struck out (64–58, including 8–7 against USA) while their pitchers struck out 80 and walked only 11.
There is only one Ohtani, only one man who can pitch and hit like him and only one man who months away from free agency placed pride of country and self above “preservation” to play the highest stakes games of his career as if he were in Little League.
“He’s playing a different game,” teammate and Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar said. “He’s doing what we liked to do as kids. But he’s doing it at the highest level and better than anyone else.”
When Ohtani walked from the left field bullpen toward the mound to pitch the ninth, he did so with the slow, ominous gait of a Western gunslinger, or at least Randy Johnson taking the same walk for the Mariners in the 1995 Division Series to help extinguish the Yankees. Turns out, Ohtani slow-played his entrance not for dramatic effect but out of the possibility of a U-turn, considering Japan issued a replay challenge on the third out of the bottom of the eighth.
This was drama as you like it, as if Shakespeare had Ohtani in mind when he wrote:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women are merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
This moment was beyond poetic. It was definitive. It defined why Japan was just that little much better than Team USA. Ohtani wanted to pitch while the best American-born pitchers stayed home on their couches. Yu Darvish, who proceeded Ohtani out of the bullpen, also wanted to pitch.
“I was shocked the Padres were okay with Darvish pitching the eighth,” DeRosa said. Nootbaar said the okay only came the morning of the game.
The best pitchers in Japan competed to get on Samurai Japan’s roster. The USA could not get even one of the 14 US-born pitchers who received a vote for the Cy Young awards last season to throw a pitch for it.
The first four pitchers DeRosa used in the championship game combined in their careers for a 114–120 record, no All-Star games, no postseason wins and no fastballs with above-average velocity. It’s not a knock on Merrill Kelly, Aaron Loup, Kyle Freeland and Jason Adam. They deserve props for showing up and for holding Japan to three runs. It’s a knock on the pitchers who should have been here, and missed what Trout, even in defeat, called “probably the funnest 10 days I've ever had. It reminded me of travel ball, when you were a kid. It brought back a lot of good memories.” The lack of star pitchers was the only blemish of a superlative international showcase of baseball over the fortnight.
As commissioner Rob Manfred said before the game, “From a competitive perspective, I think the most important thing is we're going to need to continue to work, particularly with our clubs, about pitching. I'd like to see pitching staffs that are of the same quality as our position players.”
No such trouble exists in Japan, a three-time winner out of the five WBC tournaments. The team started training together on Feb. 17—31 days ago. Eighteen thousand people showed for their first workout. More people watched Japan’s WBC games than any televised game in baseball history. In a country of 125 million people, 62 million were tuned into pool play games—more than the World Series record of 54.8 million people way back in 1980, when baseball was king in America. By comparison, 1.9 million viewers watched the U.S. beat Cuba in the semifinals.
“Without making any judgment on talent,” Nootbaar said, “baseball means the most in Japan. Forty-eight percent of the people are tuned in to these games. In the Tokyo Dome, you have 50,000 people chanting the fight song of every player in the lineup, one through nine, and they know every single word. Baseball is completely embedded in the country.”
Before the game Ohtani added “vocal leader” to the many parts he plays upon the stage. Ohtani stood in front of his teammates and implored them not to be intimidated by the Americans and their lineup, one that Nootbaar called “one of the best ever assembled.”
“Obviously, we have respect for them,” Ohtani said. “But at the same time we have to beat them on the field.”
Team Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama managed a brilliant game, in part because he was loaded with more mound weapons than DeRosa. He marched seven pitchers to the mound, almost all of them with a masterful split-fingered fastball, a pitch major leaguers see less than any other pitch. The U.S. managed only three hits against the dozens of splits that fell toward their shoetops.
Each pitcher also brought something different: varying velocities, arm angles, rhythms and wiggles on their pitchers. By the time U.S. hitters managed an inventory of what they were facing, another arm was in the game and they had to start solving all over again.
“I think they had a plan going in,” Trout said. “They weren't letting us see a guy twice. I think that was a game plan going in. They had some nasty stuff, especially when you don't see those guys the second time. If you do, you probably have better results. But they came out there and competed, made some pitches and it was tough.”
Said DeRosa, “I didn’t think anybody could hold this lineup to two runs ... but they were bringing in some nasty dudes.”
Team Japan won the tournament, in part because they won it before it began. They had the bigger buy-in. Those who did show up for Team USA made it their most star-studded roster of the five WBCs and now become the best recruiters for the 2026 roster. They are Manfred’s best ambassadors.
“It's different,” Trout said about playing in the WBC. “It's just like ... I mean, I can't really express what's different about it. You just feel it in your veins, you know? It's a special, special feeling. As a player, it’s so much fun doing it. Just to see that difference, it's pretty, pretty cool.”
There was no denying the better team, just as there was no denying Ohtani. Already a once-a-century ballplayer, an international face of the game and a cultural icon in his homeland with importance far beyond baseball, Ohtani somehow managed to elevate further his unique status. And after it, true to a humility of strength equal to his physical talent, he already was talking about the next WBC. He said he knows he must maintain a high level of play just to qualify for the team in 2026.
“And hopefully,” he said in utmost sincerity, “I’ll be a better ballplayer.”