TOKYO -- There were 41,616 people inside the Tokyo Dome on Thursday night, but every eye, every cell phone and every ounce of attention was focused all on one man: No. 16 for Japan -- Shohei Ohtani. A deafening roar was released when his name was announced. It somehow grew louder when he stepped out to the mound, before falling to a nearly silent hush as he stared in for his first pitch. Once it was released, every voice cried out again.
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t realize it was a ball.
Facing Team China, which had been outscored, 37-5, in the four previous matchups between the two teams, was almost an unfair assignment for the superstar Ohtani, who led Japan to an 8-1 win in the tournament opener for both countries.
"It's breathtaking. I have to pinch myself every time I watch him play, and today, it was the first time I played behind him defensively," said Team Japan -- and Cardinals -- outfielder Lars Nootbaar after the game.
Playing in the World Baseball Classic for the first time in his career, Ohtani was predictably dominant against Team China. In four innings, Ohtani struck out five and gave up just one hit. He hardly looked to have broken a sweat while doing it. He touched 100 mph and hit 99-plus mph six times.
Most of the Chinese roster plays in the Chinese National Baseball League, which has been paused since the end of the 2019 season due to COVID-19. They’ve been training and scrimmaging on their own for the last three years. Their first assignment in the World Baseball Classic was against the world’s most remarkable ballplayer.
At the plate, Ohtani was, well, Ohtani. After walking in his first plate appearance, the Angels star came to the dish with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the second, and Japan leading, 1-0. You could sense the entire crowd practically willing him to deposit the baseball roughly 500 feet away into the Tokyo Dome rafters. Instead, he grounded out to shortstop to end the frame.
In the bottom of the fourth, though, he broke through. With runners on the corners, Ohtani laced a double to the gap to extend Japan’s lead to 3-0. He finished 2-for-4 with two walks and two RBIs.
Nootbaar was asked what it's like to even be around a player as gifted as Ohtani.
"I think we all kind of watch him," he said. "We do our work but we also are watching him, and I think we do it out of respect but also, he's the best baseball player on the planet, so I think we would be foolish not to do that."
And with such a unreal talent on the mound and in the lineup, Team Japan was heavily favored and was expected to steamroll its Chinese competition -- but that was far from the case. China’s pitching staff had a bend-but-don’t-break performance, stranding 13 runners over the first seven innings. China helped its cause by throwing out Kensuke Kondoh at the plate when he tried to tag up on a ball hit to shallow right field in the first inning and picking off Sosuke Genda in the second.
China was even able to cut into the celebratory atmosphere in the Tokyo Dome and turn it into one of uneasy apprehension when they got on the board in the sixth inning. Right fielder Liang Pei -- who already has an impressive trophy case, winning a championship with the Beijing Tigers in 2019 and being named to the Chinese Professional Baseball League's All-Star Game that year -- homered in the top of the sixth off Shosei Togo. It was just the fourth home run hit by Team China in the World Baseball Classic, and the first since team legend Ray Chang homered against Chinese Taipei in 2009.
The crowd -- most of which was decked out in Team Japan gear -- was able to breathe easier again when second baseman Shugo Maki homered to extend the lead back to three runs before Japan added four more runs of insurance in the eighth to put the game out of reach.
Team Japan will be back in the Tokyo Dome on Friday night for its biggest contest in the competition when they face their rivals, Korea (5 a.m. ET FS1). It’s a must-win game for Korea after losing to Australia, so Japan will need to be ready for its opponents to empty its ‘pen and go all out to even its record.
China will next play the Czech Republic at 10 p.m. ET (Tubi). The game will be of vital importance to each team: The top four countries in every pool will automatically gain entry into the 2026 World Baseball Classic and not need to play in the qualifiers.
Two teams from Pool B will advance out of round-robin play into the single-elimination WBC quarterfinals March 15-16, before the semifinals and final March 19-21 in Miami.