Japan were named the world champions of baseball after edging the USA in an enthralling World Baseball Classic in Miami.
The thrilling culmination of the now three-time champions’ victory saw Japanese captain Shohei Ohtani, the game’s greatest two-way player, pitching against US captain Mike Trout, widely regarded as the greatest batter of his generation, with a one-run lead to protect.
The showdown between the two Los Angeles Angels team-mates, veritably the Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi of baseball, ended in Trout striking out as the States lost the title they won in 2017.
“Whether I got him out or he got a hit off of me, I didn't want to have any regrets,” said Ohtani. “I wanted to make my best pitch. This is a different experience, representing your country and facing guys representing their country. It was a different intensity and it was great.”
Carrying their nation's flags, the two men had led their respective teams onto the field and then at the climax, in a moment of pure sporting magic, stood across from each other with everything on the line.
SHOHEI OHTANI STRIKES OUT MIKE TROUT TO WIN THE #WORLDBASEBALLCLASSIC! pic.twitter.com/F7vUtIiRR1— MLB (@MLB) March 22, 2023
With Japan clinging to a 3-2 ninth inning lead they turned to their ace Ohtani. He walked the first batter he faced in Jeff McNeil but then got Mookie Betts to hit into a double play, bringing up Trout with two out and the sellout crowd on its feet.
Throwing 100 mph fastballs Ohtani struck out his Angels team mate on six pitches to trigger celebrations as the Japan team poured out of the dugout.
The moment also continued the stunning ascendancy of Ohtani, 28, into becoming the sport’s leading global superstart. United States manager Mark DeRosa described: “What he's doing in the game is what probably 90 per cent of the guys in that clubhouse did in Little League or in youth tournaments, and he's able to pull it off on the biggest stages. He is a unicorn to the sport.”
Ohtani was named the WBC's Most Valuable Player after posting the best statistics over the entire tournament.
US shortstop Trea Turner provided the early fireworks with a second inning solo shot, taking Shota Imanaga into the left field bleachers for his fifth home run of the WBC to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead.
Japan answered right back in the bottom of the inning, slugger Munetaka Murakami, who drove in the two runs in Japan's walkoff semi-final win over Mexico, slamming a home run to deep center off Merrill Kelly. After Kelly loaded the bases DeRosa had seen enough, making the switch to Aaron Loup, who would get them out of the inning but not before Lars Nootbaar grounded out to first to score Kazuma Okamoto with the go-ahead run.
Murakami CRUSHED this baseball at 115.1 MPH! #WorldBaseballClassic pic.twitter.com/OdRd0OUCvD— World Baseball Classic (@WBCBaseball) March 22, 2023
Okamoto added to Japan's lead with a home run to lead off the bottom of the fourth. And Japan had a huge opportunity to put the contest out of reach in the sixth when Jason Adams walked three to load the bases, but Nootbaar flied out meekly to right to end the threat.
With the US running out of innings Kyle Schwarber, the National League's home run champion, slammed a monster homer off Yu Darvish in the eighth, taking him into the upper deck to trim Japan's lead to 3-2.