JARED D’AGOSTINO WRITES – It seems like just yesterday …what a game!
On March 21st, 2023, Shohei Ohtani led Team Japan against Mike Trout and Team USA in the final of the World Baseball Classic. Ohtani and Trout are considered two of baseball’s very best players and were put on the world stage of the WBC against one another.
Mike Trout, based on statistics, is already considered among the very greatest of all time to have played the game. Ohtani is very much also on this path due to his unique abilities to be not just an elite hitter but an ace pitcher. In the 2021 season Ohtani’s two-way abilities earned him American League MVP honors, hitting 46 home runs, stealing 25 bases, and pitching a phenomenal 9-2 record in starts with a 3.18 ERA.
Many people thought that this was the ceiling for the best player in the league, but in the 2022 season he improved his overall game—still hitting over 30 home runs and greatly improving his pitching—finishing with a 15-9 record and an incredible ERA of 2.33. If not for a historic season by Yankees Center Fielder Aaron Judge, who broke the American league single season home run record with 63 home runs, Ohtani would have most likely won back-to-back MVP awards. Ohtani finished second in MVP voting, behind Judge, while also finishing 4th overall in the American League ‘Cy Young’ Voting for best pitcher.
2023 has been a standout season for the 28-year-old superstar. In the World Baseball Classic, he led Team Japan to a championship victory with his stellar two-way performance, finishing the tournament with a .435 batting average and pitching a 1.88 ERA in 9.2 innings pitched.
The biggest moments for Ohtani came in the two final games of the tournament, first against Team Mexico in the semifinals, then against the United States team, whose lineup was considered by many the best of all time.
Ohtani, against Mexico and down 5-3 in the bottom of the ninth, hit a leadoff double to energize his team. This was followed by Masataka Yoshida, who had an amazing tournament himself, drawing a walk. This led to Munetaka Murakami coming up to the plate—the player who last season in Nippon Professional baseball set the single season record for home runs. He proceeded to hit a walk off double, ending the game, and setting up the dream matchup of USA vs Japan.
In the finals, Ohtani went 1/3 at the plate with his hit coming on an infield single in which he flew to first base in 4.16 seconds. The climax, though, came in the 9th inning. Ohtani did not have an easy task facing some of the best players in the world, in the form of Mets all- star Jeff McNeil, followed by a pair of MVPs: Dodgers superstar Mookie Betts, who won AL MVP in 2018; and Mike Trout, Ohtani’s teammate in U.S. MLB and a three-time MVP, considered by many one of the greatest players of all time.
Ohtani issued a leadoff walk to McNeil, but from there pitched a flawless inning that forced Mookie Betts into a double play and cleared McNeil off the bases. This is how the finale everyone wanted was set up, with Ohtani taking on Trout. Ohtani did not shy away from this challenge. He beat Trout on three swinging strikes, two of which came on 100-mph fastballs, straight down the middle, and with an amazing slider to finish off Trout. Such was the triumph of Team Japan, winning the tournament for the first time since 2009 and being named to the all-tournament team as both the Designated Hitter and the Pitcher.
This is only the start for Ohtani, for what should be one of the biggest years of his career. He will most likely have another phenomenal season for the Angels, both at the plate and on the mound. He will most likely become the highest paid athlete in the history of sports. Whether he remains with the Angels or goes to a team such as the Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs or Mets, it is projected that he will get a contract valued at 500-600 million dollars.
Ohtani is set to be the Angels’ opening day starter for the second consecutive season, when the Angels visit the Oakland A’s on MLB opening day, March 30th. Whether it be with the Angels or another team, Ohtani may well become the greatest baseball player of his time – and perhaps of all time.