Shohei vs. Trout for the Classic title? A strikeout heard 'round the world

March 22nd, 2023

MIAMI -- No words can adequately describe the atmosphere and the level of noise in loanDepot park on Tuesday night when, in the top of the ninth inning, struck out Angels teammate and Team USA captain  to secure a 3-2 Team Japan victory in the 2023 World Baseball Classic championship game.

“I thought it was like a Manga,” Japan infielder Kazuma Okamoto said, “like a comic book.”

Fans had been hoping to see Ohtani and Trout, two of the best players in Major League Baseball, go head-to-head. But no one expected the matchup to be the deciding factor in whether Japan would win its third WBC title.

“If you were going to write a script, I was hoping it was going to go our way with Mikey popping [a homer] against Ohtani,” USA manager Mark DeRosa said. “But like I said, the baseball world -- this thing is real. The WBC's real. The whole world got to see Ohtani come in in a big spot, battling. It's kind of how it was kind of scripted. I just wish it would have went different.”

It became clear to all involved sometime in the eighth inning that the Ohtani vs. Trout battle had a real chance of coming to fruition. Cedric Mullins flied out to end the top of the eighth, setting up Jeff McNeil, Mookie Betts and Trout to come to the plate in the ninth.

“I saw him after his last at-bat [in the seventh inning] somewhere out in the bullpen,” Trout said. “I think every baseball fan wanted to see that -- I've been answering questions about it for the last month and a half. … I had a blast.”

Meanwhile, Ohtani had been scrambling between Japan’s dugout and the bullpen starting in the sixth inning to make sure he was able to take his at-bats as designated hitter and also get warmed up to enter as closer -- his first such appearance since he closed a game for the Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2016. 

“I'm sure everybody in the U.S. was thinking Shohei and Trout is something,” Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said. “I think nobody was -- of course that was the ideal situation, but I don't think anybody was really imagining it.”

Ohtani slowly made his way from the bullpen to the mound after the final out of the eighth inning, pausing when he reached the infield dirt before crossing that earthen moat surrounding the infield grass. 

The crowd went wild as Japan turned a double play for the first two outs of the ninth inning, following a walk Ohtani issued to McNeil. They all knew that Trout stood on the on-deck circle. This was what so many had hoped to see.

In the end it came down to Ohtani’s sweeper, one of his best pitches -- a slider that features more horizontal break.

Trout worked a 3-2 count, taking balls on a sweeper down and two fastballs away while whiffing on two 100 mph four-seam fastballs down the middle. 

In Trout’s 6,174 career at-bats, he has recorded three swinging strikes a mere 24 times. (If you’re better with percentages, that’s just 0.39% of his career at-bats.) The only pitcher who has done that to him twice is Ohtani's countrymate, Yu Darvish.

So Ohtani sent a third sweeper toward Trout. This time, Trout swung at the 87.2 mph offering that veered off the plate at the last second. It was, for lack of a better word, the perfect pitch to elicit a whiff.

Ohtani practically leapt off the mound, both arms raised as he turned toward the dugout and yelled in what cannot be described as anything other than glee as he threw his glove and his baseball cap and was immediately mobbed by his teammates in a sea of white pinstripe jerseys. 

Trout, head hung low, returned to the U.S. dugout as the defending champs’ reign came to an end.

“Obviously [it] didn't come out the way I wanted it to,” Trout said. “I think as a baseball [fan], everybody wanted to see it. He won round one.”

In mere days, Ohtani and Trout will take the field as teammates once more in Tempe, Ariz., for the remainder of Spring Training. Then, Opening Day. 

“[Team Mexico manager] Benji Gil said it last night, that, you know, baseball won last night,” Japan outfielder Lars Nootbaar said, “and I think with Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout ending the game the way they did -- I think baseball won again.”