It is rare in baseball that the scripted Hollywood ending really happens. The rules of the sport make it statistically improbable: unlike in the NFL, or NBA, you cannot be sure that the ball will be in the hands of your best player when it really matters.
For the pitching side, the ninth inning is invariably in the hands of a closer, who – whilst elite in their own sense – tend to not have the star power of the top tier starter. For the hitting team, it is a lineup lottery: who is coming up with the game on the line? In all statistical likelihood, not your best hitter.
And so it was hardly surprising that the whispers started as early as the eighth inning. Shohei Ohtani is warming in the bullpen. The US make it a one-run game. Mike Trout is due up third in the ninth. Eyeball emojis galore on Twitter. Hushed tones in the commentary box.
Following a walk, and a double play, we got the moment we’d all dared to dream of but not say aloud. Two of the greatest baseball players to walk the field going head to head, with two outs, in the bottom of the ninth, and the sport’s most prestigious international title on the line.
Boy was it special.
BALL ONE – SLIDER – 88 MPH
It’s a beauty of a pitch, but Mike Trout is taking the whole way. Throughout his career, Trout has often ranked in the 10th percentile of first-pitch swingers, a trend punctuated every five years by a more aggressive approach, almost as if he is toying with the pitchers who think they might have figured him out.
But the real fun has begun before Trout has stepped into the box. The broadcast captures it perfectly – the small nod out to his Los Angeles Angels teammate before the two square off. The baseball equivalent of a touch of gloves before the start of a boxing bout. It’s quick, it’s subtle, but it’s perfect.
It’s the first time the pair have ever faced each other in a competitive environment – obviously maybe, considering they have both spent their entire careers with same one franchise. So imagine the nerves, the adrenaline but above it all the respect, that goes into a moment like this. Two gladiators entering the arena knowing that only one can win.
Trout said after the game that this was “probably the funnest 10 days I’ve ever had”. And it is enormous credit to him, to Ohtani and to every one of the WBC competitors that they put on the spectacle that they did this month.
We are served constant reminders that baseball suffers from an ageing audience, that it’s stuck in the past, that it doesn’t market superstars well enough. As Mike Trout suppressed a smile, nodded out at his friend on the mound and stepped in to the batters box to take ball one, it felt like the culmination of two weeks of baseball players taking it upon themselves to refute that narrative.
STRIKE ONE – FASTBALL – 100 MPH
It almost seems silly to try to write about the talent of Shohei Ohtani. He is beyond description. To watch him on your screen is to be utterly spellbound; to view his talent in person must be a near-religious experience.
I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s famous New York Times essay on Roger Federer, where he talks of ‘Federer moments’ and ‘kinetic beauty’. It is the kind of prose that is absurdly hyperbolic for anyone but the pantheon of all-time greats, and yet it feels relevant now for the 28-year old Japanese phenom.
There are the numbers, of course, and they bear repeating. Pitches over 100mph with regularity. 115mph line drive gunshots that put him among the game’s very best for exit velocities. The sprint speed, 30 ft/s, elite for anyone, let alone an athlete of Ohtani’s size and power. The stats are almost dehumanising: he is as close to the perfect lab-grown baseball player as you could hope to create, he is the MLB The Show custom player with the sliders all turned up to 100.
And yet it is the actions, not the numbers, that make him so entrancing. We use data, description, historical precedence, all to help us quantify what our eyeballs tell us the moment we set eyes on Shohei Ohtani on a baseball field: that we are witnessing the most talented player the game has ever produced.
BALL TWO – FASTBALL – 100 MPH
There is almost a beautiful contrast between Shohei Ohtani’s in-your-face talent and Mike Trout’s quiet excellence.
I say almost, because Mike Trout is still built like action man, hits 450 foot home runs with ease and is among the most athletic defenders and baserunners to ever grace a baseball field. But he doesn’t seem to stretch the boundaries of reality in the same way that Ohtani does, he operates much more clearly in the realm of humanity.
He is a reluctant superstar, once described as the ‘$426m star most Americans don’t know’ in an exclusive BBC interview. His team hasn’t made it to the playoffs since 2014. He hasn’t participated in a home run derby his entire career. He is anonymous to the general British public.
Watching him play baseball, you quickly understand that he is good – very good. But the talent doesn’t smack you in the mouth in the way that it does with Ohtani. It takes more explanation.
There are the accomplishments, obviously. A ten-time All-Star; a three-time MVP; a nine-time winner of the Silver Slugger Award and a Rookie of the Year gong, now over a decade old.
Then there are the stats. 82.1 career wins-above-replacement (1st among active players), 350 career home runs, 204 career stolen bases and a 172 wRC+. He draws walks. He hits dingers. He plays one of the sport’s toughest positions at an elite level.
Injuries have slowed Trout down and perhaps age will too as his 30s progress. It now looks unlikely he will end his career as the all-time WAR leader. The playoff experience – or lack thereof – will constantly hang over him.
But I truly believe he has changed the game of baseball. No player has better encompassed the advancement in analytics that has improved our understanding of the sport in the last 15 years. Where Moneyball walked, Mike Trout ran. Sabermetrics never make more sense than they do when quantifying his stupefying excellence.
On a 100mph, 1-1 pitch, cutting inches away from the strike zone, Mike Trout somehow laid off.
STRIKE TWO – FASTBALL – 100 MPH
It was miraculous, really, that Shohei Ohtani was even pitching in this game.
Whilst most starters pitch every five days, Ohtani has always been granted extra rest between starts due to his unique role as a two-way player. To shoulder a full starting pitcher’s workload alongside a full-time DH role would be impossible: the Angels have rightly handled him carefully to ensure his health comes first.
There was a time, not too long ago, where people thought he would never make it as a full-time starter. Tommy John surgery at the end of his rookie season followed by a flexor strain in his elbow just two starts into his MLB pitching comeback two years later meant many felt he should focus on being a full-time position player.
Of course, he followed that up by becoming the unanimous AL MVP with a historic two-way season in 2021 and hardly took a backwards step last season as an encore. Even with his pitching restrictions lifted, Ohtani had never started on fewer than five days rest as an Angel. He entered Tuesday’s WBC Final on four days rest.
The Angels green-lit Japan’s plan to make him available for one inning. Given the hysteria around Edwin Diaz’s injury earlier in the tournament, they could have been forgiven for being less accommodating. They have a lot to lose in the most valuable asset in baseball.
But perhaps no-one had more to lose from a potential WBC injury than Shohei Ohtani himself. A free agent at the end of the season, he looks set to earn the most lucrative contract in sports history before 2023 is over if he remains healthy.
Shohei wanted to pitch. He made that clear in media opportunities before the game, and I suspect he made it clear to the Angels before they gave their official blessing. The tournament might not matter to some MLB fans, but it matters to the players.
On short rest, Ohtani blows a heater past Mike Trout. His next pitch, at 102mph, would be faster than any he has ever thrown in an Angels uniform.
BALL THREE – FASTBALL – 102 MPH
Ohtani is amped up. He has never played in a game this big before in his career. Certainly not on US soil.
Therein lies baseball’s ‘superstar problem’, if you want to call it that. Ohtani and Trout are all-world legends of the game. They are at the peak of their powers. They play on the same team. In any other US sport, that team would be a perennial Championship favourite. In baseball, the Los Angeles Angels are projected to go 83-79 and have a 2.2% chance of winning the World Series.
I could make this article considerably longer than it already is detailing the various problems that the Angels have had in the last decade. The Albert Pujols decline, the inability to develop starting pitching, the bullpen meltdowns, the defensive calamities. Every April, the ‘what if’ questions start up again, and every September, their season ends with a sad whimper.
This at-bat must be excruciating for Angels fans. On the one hand, you would be giddy with excitement, barely believing that these two titans of the sport both play for your team. On the other, you would be bereft with sadness, understanding that neither of them have ever encountered a situation close to this in terms of tension, stakes or pressure in an Angels uniform before and possibly never will.
Sport is, by design, pretty cruel. Of the 30 MLB teams, 29 will go home empty handed this year. Some fans will follow their franchise for a lifetime, never seeing them hoist the World Series. I should know, I’m a Rockies fan. It’s what makes the victories that much more satisfying.
Watching this epic at-bat go to a full count, you can’t help but feel a tinge of sympathy for Angels fans, who are forced to perform the baseball equivalent of seeing their lifelong crush achieve true happiness with someone else.
STRIKE THREE – SLIDER – 87 MPH
Just a perfect pitch. To end an absorbing at-bat, to end a thrilling game, to end a magical tournament. It couldn’t be more fitting. After pumping triple-digit gas past Trout twice, Ohtani spins a gorgeous slider off the outside edge and hurls his glove, then his hat into the night sky as he is mobbed by his jubilant teammates.
The result matters.
Not just because of the delicious irony of the USA losing the only tournament that could quite accurately be described as a ‘World Series’, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take some small satisfaction in that.
It matters to Team Japan, who hadn’t won a WBC title since 2009 and for whom the tournament means so much. The team went 7-0 across the fortnight, becoming cult heroes at home. Nothing embodied this more than the ‘pepper grinder’ celebration popularised by Lars Nootbaar which has become a viral sensation.
It matters to the people of Japan. An estimated 62 million people in Japan watched their side beat Korea in the pool stage – almost half of all households. The numbers for the final will shatter that. Baseball’s popularity there is nothing new, but this still feels like a watershed moment.
It matters to Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). For too long viewed as a second-rate feeder league to Major League Baseball, the past fortnight has proved that the talent in Japan’s domestic scene is healthier than ever. Roki Sasaki is not a superstar in the making. He is a superstar right now. Same goes for Munetaka Murakami.
It matters to us, the fans of baseball here in the UK. The WBC legitimises baseball as a worldwide sport, not just an American Pastime followed by a few insomniac weirdos with nothing better to do. There is genuine pride in watching Team GB represent us on the world stage, in watching Harry Ford go toe-to-toe with the sport’s superstars and don a crown and sceptre as he leads us to a historic victory.
It matters to Major League Baseball. International expansion has long been a stated goal of the organisation, but it’s not easy to achieve. Whether serendipitous or intentional, GB’s superb WBC results were swiftly followed by a marketing and PR push by MLB Europe around England Cricket star Harry Brook at Spring Training – enough of a wave to capture the eye of my baseball-indifferent colleagues. With the small matter of a two-game series in London taking place in June, these moments are important for the success of that event and the growth of the sport more generally.
It matters, finally, to the sport of baseball. Ooh, how fluffy and nice. At the time of writing, the final out tweet has 67K retweets, 197K likes and over 4.3M views. From Trea Turner‘s grand slam to this final at-bat, what we’ve witnessed in the last two weeks might be the most exciting moments the sport has seen in years. It has reminded old fans why we love this game so much and it showed new fans what they’ve been missing.
In the end, it was only one at-bat. Six simple pitches. Pretty soon, the Angels will be 15-26 and the WBC will be a mere object in the rear view mirror. It was hard not to think of it as a moment for baseball though. Time will tell whether it ends up being the moment for baseball. Hollywood hasn’t finished that script just yet.