NARITA, Chiba -- Before Shohei Ohtani closed out Japan's dramatic victory over the United States in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic, catcher Yuhei Nakamura went out to the mound for a talk.
Nakamura had never been behind the plate when Ohtani pitched -- not even for warming up in the bullpen -- and he wanted to make sure the two got their signals straight. Instead, he got a surprise.
"Don't worry too much about location," Nakamura quoted Ohtani as telling him. "Just relax and get into position."
The behind-the-scenes episode was related during a press conference in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, following the return of the non-major league players on the team to Japan on Thursday.
Ohtani was the last of seven pitchers who combined on the 3-2 victory over the United States on Tuesday night in Miami, giving the team known as Samurai Japan its third WBC title and first since 2009.
"Each pitcher is fantastic in their own right," Nakamura said. "So I thought if I could bring out the strengths of each one, we could hold down the United States."
With Japan leading by a run in the ninth inning, Nakamura did as Ohtani requested and left it up to the Los Angeles Angels' two-way star. He did not set a specific target for each pitch, and Ohtani ended the game by striking out three-time MVP slugger and Angels' teammate Mike Trout in the most anticipated at-bat of the tournament.
That was only part of the legend that Ohtani built during the game. As the designated hitter, Ohtani beat out an infield hit in the seventh inning, then jogged out to the bullpen to begin warming up. His last appearance on the mound left a deep impression on his teammates.
"It was really like a scene out of a dream," said Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Munetaka Murakami, who hit a solo home run in the final.
Saitama Seibu Lions infielder Hotaka Yamakawa echoed a common refrain, saying, "In the end, it was dramatic that it came down to a one-on-one showdown between Shohei and Trout."
The Yomiuri Giants' Kazuma Okamoto, whose solo home run in the fourth inning gave Japan the insurance run that would later pay off, said of the victory, "My thought was, 'Baseball can be this much fun.'"
While Ohtani was firmly in the spotlight, manager Hideki Kuriyama reminded all that the championship was truly a team effort. "The players filled the role they were called on to do to the fullest," he said. "It was really a wonderful team."
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