Shohei Ohtani Shines as Japan Opens WBC with a Hard-Fought Win over China
The two-way star was impressive both on the mound and at the plate in Japan's rout of China in the WBC opener for both teams.
Shohei Ohtani kicked off Japan's quest for a record third WBC title with a performance fitting one of the game's biggest stars.
Starting the game on the mound and batting third as the designated hitter, the two-way sensation lived up to the hype as Japan beat China 8-1 before a sold-out crowd at Tokyo Dome on Thursday, March 9.
Japan took a 1-0 lead in the first inning of the teams' 2023 World Baseball Classic Pool B opener and the game stayed that way until Ohtani broke it open with a double off the wall in the fourth that scored runners from first and third to make it 3-0.
Samurai Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said later, "I think the players were under quite a bit of pressure as we didn’t know very much about their pitchers. Ohtani came through with a big hit that brought the game to life."
It was the kind of clutch hit that Ohtani has become known for in his career with the Los Angeles Angels where the Japanese star has drawn comparisons to Babe Ruth for his prowess both as a pitcher and hitter.
On the mound, Ohtani threw 49 pitches over four scoreless innings, 16 pitches short of the limit allowed under WBC rules. He struck out five and gave up one hit with no walks to earn the win.
The only hit he gave up came in the top of the fourth, a sharp liner to left by Jin Yang.
Ohtani Delighted to Play in WBC
Ohtani waited six years to compete in the tourney after an ankle injury prevented him from playing in 2017. He relished every moment of Thursday's game, celebrating with his teammates and chatting with the unheralded Chinese players when on base.
"I was happy to contribute and I want to thank the fans for staying until the very end, this is just the beginning and we still have a lot of work to do," Ohtani told reporters after the game.
Shugo Maki added to Japan's lead with an opposite-field solo homer to right in the bottom of the seventh.
Japan added four more runs in the eighth when the wheels came off for China's pitchers.
Nootbaar Receives Warm Applause
There was a huge ovation when Lars Nootbaar led off the game for Japan with a single to center on the first pitch he faced.
Nootbaar, who has a Japanese mother and an American father, has become an overnight fan favorite in Japan.
The St. Louis Cardinals outfielder also made a spectacular diving catch in center field in the third inning that resulted in Ohtani raising both arms in recognition of the fine defensive play.
China's starting pitcher Xiang Wang issued a bases-loaded walk to 2022 Central League Triple Crown winner Munetaka Murakami in the first inning for Japan's first run.
Samurai Japan should have had more. With the bases loaded and one out, Kazuma Okamoto hit into a double play; a pop out to right that resulted in Kensuke Kondoh being thrown out at home trying to tag up from third.
Wang, who left the game after 1⅔ innings, was charged with the loss. He issued six walks, allowed two hits and a run.
The top two teams from the Pool B, which also includes Australia, South Korea and the Czech Republic, will qualify for the quarterfinal knockout-round games also at Tokyo Dome on March 15 and 16.
Japan Set for Clash with South Korea
Japan faces South Korea on Friday in what should be the premier matchup of the opening round in Pool B. After losing to Australia earlier on Thursday, the South Koreans will be desperate for a win.
Yu Darvish will start for Japan, Kuriyama said.
This is the fifth installment of the WBC. Japan won the first two editions in 2006 and 2009.
The Dominican Republic captured the championship in 2013 and Team USA won the tournament in 2017. The 2021 edition was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Japan is hoping to recapture the title with a star-studded roster that includes Ohtani, Darvish and Roki Sasaki among other standouts from both MLB and NPB.
China Shows Resilience
On the other side of the ledger, the Chinese team was surprisingly resilient. Under American manager Dean Treanor, China refused to be pushed around.
Its pitchers held up remarkably well and there was stunned silence in Tokyo Dome when Pei Liang hit a solo homer to left in the sixth off Japan pitcher Shosei Togo to make it 3-1.
There is a so-called "run rule" in the WBC where victory is awarded if a team is ahead by 10 or more runs after any complete inning, beginning with the completion of the seventh inning. Or if a team is ahead by 15 or more runs after any complete inning, beginning with the fifth inning.
Many thought that rule would come into effect Thursday, but it wasn't needed to the credit of the Chinese team.
"We were in this game up until the eighth inning," Treanor said.
He added, "We put ourselves in a position to win and I’m proud of the way we played."
Australia Shocks South Korea
In Thursday's first game, Australia upset South Korea 8-7 on a pair of three-run homers by Robbie Glendinning and Robbie Perkins.
Glendinning's moonshot into the left field stands in the seventh made it 5-4 for the Aussies.
"I hit it and I knew it was one of the best feelings I've had," Glendinning said of his homer.
He added, "I remember looking in the dugout and seeing everyone just going crazy."
Perkins then followed with another three-run clout in the top of the eighth to widen the lead to 8-4.
The South Koreans clawed back to 8-7 with three runs in the bottom of the eighth but couldn't get another run.
Tommy Edman led off the ninth with a single. Ha Seong Kim and Jung Hoo Lee both hit fly balls to right before Edman was caught stealing second to end the game.
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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.