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Japan Dethrones US, Captures Third World Baseball Classic Title

Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani is named World Baseball Classic MVP after an all-around performance that included two wins, a save and a .435 batting average.

Shohei Ohtani struck out teammate Mike Trout for a storybook ending as Japan edged the defending champion United States 3-2 on Tuesday, March 21 in a thrilling final to win its third World Baseball Classic title and first in 14 years.

A day after a dramatic 6-5 sayonara win over Mexico on Monday in the semifinals at loanDepot Park in Miami, Samurai Japan was back for more excitement in the final against its main baseball rival.

Kyle Schwarber hit a solo homer in the top of the eighth inning off Yu Darvish to pull the hosts within one run and set up a nail-biting finish.

Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama sent his biggest star out to nail down the victory in the ninth and the two-way sensation didn't disappoint on the mound.

Ohtani issued a leadoff walk to Jeff McNeil, which just added to the tension for Japan and its legion of fans who made the long trip to Miami and millions more watching back home on Wednesday morning local time.

But there was a huge sigh of relief when Ohtani then got six-time MLB All-Star Mookie Betts to hit into a double play. 

That brought up Ohtani's Los Angeles Angels' teammate and good friend Trout, a three-time American League MVP.

After getting three balls and two strikes on Trout, Ohtani threw a slider that moved away from the star player as he whiffed in vain to end the game.

World Baseball Classic
Shohei Ohtani reacts after striking out Mike Trout to end the game. (ⒸSANKEI)

Thrilling Achievement for Ohtani, Teammates

Japan's players, who didn't lose a single game in the tournament, poured out onto the field for a wild celebration.

"I'm happy to have realized my dream," Ohtani said. "I was nervous on the mound but am happy I was able to protect the slim lead."

He added, "I allowed a runner and was worried I wouldn't face Trout for the last out, but the double play set the stage and I was so happy to face him."

Conversely, it was a disappointing finish for Trout and his American teammates.

US manager Mark DeRosa spoke about the final at-bat with vivid details after the game.

"Yeah, I saw him take a big deep breath to try and control his emotions,” DeRosa said of Trout. "I can't even imagine being in that moment, the two best players on the planet locking horns as teammates in that spot. The fans won tonight. I'm just ― I'm chapped we didn't win.”

DeRosa added, "Yeah, I was hoping it would end a little bit different with Mike popping one. But the baseball world won tonight. Although those guys are disappointed in there, I couldn't be prouder of 'em, the way they came together as a team."


Japan slugger Munetaka Murakami whacks a solo homer in the second inning. (ⒸSANKEI)

Turner, Murakami Smack Solo Homers in Second Inning

The game started off as a tight battle between the two baseball superpowers.

Trea Turner put the Americans on top with a solo homer to left in the top of the second inning off Japan starter Shota Imanaga

But Japan came right back in the bottom of the frame. 

Munetaka Murakami, the hero of the semifinal win over Mexico, connected for a solo blast into the upper deck in right field off U.S. starter Merrill Kelly, who took the loss after giving up two runs on three hits over 1⅓ innings.

"After we gave up one run, I was anxious to get some runs back for us," Murakami said. "I got it square and it felt great to connect for a home run."  

It was the first home run of the WBC for Murakami, who hit the clutch double in the win against Mexico. He had an NPB-best 56 round-trippers during the 2022 regular season.

Also in the second, Japan took the lead when Lars Nootbaar hit a bases-loaded grounder to first base that allowed Kazuma Okamoto to score from third.

WBC
Kazuma Okamoto smacks a solo homer in the fourth inning. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Okamoto then added to Japan's lead, making it 3-1 in the fourth on a solo homer to left off Team USA pitcher Kyle Freeland.

The score remained that way until Schwarber's moonshot into the right-field stands in the eighth.

Japan starter Shota Imanaga in action in the first inning. (ⒸSANKEI)

It's just a shoe!

Japan's Star-Studded Roster Excels in Tournament

Masataka Yoshida, who will start his first season with the Boston Red Sox this spring, finished with a tournament-best 13 RBIs.

Japan won the inaugural WBC in 2006 and then repeated as champion three years later. The Dominican Republic won in 2013 and the United States took the title in 2017.

With a star-studded roster this time, Japan was determined to recapture the title this year and did just that. The team was made up of the best Japanese players from both MLB and NPB.

Imanaga, who gave up one run on four hits with two strikeouts over two innings, got the win. 

World Baseball Classic
Hiroto Takahashi, one of six Samurai Japan relievers to appear in the final, pitched a scoreless fifth inning. (KYODO)

Japan's relief corps of Shosei Togo, Hiroto Takahashi, Hiromi Itoh and Taisei Ota all kept the US batters off the scoreboard through the seventh inning. Ohtani got the save.

At the plate, Ohtani, the team's starting designated hitter, finished the WBC with one home run and eight RBIs in seven games. He had 10 hits, including four doubles, in 23 at-bats for a .435 average. In the final, Ohtani beat out an infield single in the seventh, going 1-for-3 against the US.

Ohtani was named the tournament's MVP.  He had three mound appearances, including two starts, going 2-0 with a 1.86 ERA, one save and 11 strikeouts in 9⅔ innings.

His stats and WBC title will just add to his reputation as one of the greatest players, if not the greatest, currently playing in MLB. 

Samurai Japan celebrates after winning the 2023 World Baseball Classic title. (ⒸSANKEI)

The Road to the World Baseball Classic Title

Japan set the tone for its tournament play with an 8-1 victory over China in the opening game at Tokyo Dome. It closed out Pool B play with wins over South Korea (13-4), the Czech Republic (10-2) and Australia (7-1). 

Japan knocked out Italy (9-3) in the quarterfinals to punch its ticket to single-elimination play in Miami.

Asked about his team’s key to success in the WBC during a postgame news conference after the final, Kuriyama said it was a collective effort.

"Well, of course all the players did their best,” the manager commented. "And also, every player, Yoshida and Shohei and Nootbaar, all the players made up the fantastic team. So that's probably one of the components.

"Also, what is the culture of the Japanese team? I think it's [pitching]. And I think that the pitcher is the critical point. And besides Shohei, the younger pitchers are great, so I was very happy.”

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Sports editor Ed Odeven contributed to this report.

Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.

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