Touched by an Angel

The 2023 World Baseball Classic came to an end on Tuesday night with a matchup between Team USA and Samurai Japan with an ending that was so perfect the games almost seemed scripted. Two outs, and down by one in the bottom of the ninth, Team USA’s Mike Trout came to bat to face his real-life teammate Shohei Ohtani in a show down that garnered 6.5 million viewers in the U.S. alone, and roughly 67% of the televisions in Japan were watching the game.  

I’ve always been a fan of international sports such as the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup, so when the World Baseball Classic was introduced in 2006 because baseball was dropped from the Olympic games I was all in. While I did watch some of the games from 2006, 2009, and 2013, it wasn’t until the 2017 games that really hooked me and had me watching baseball from Japan or Korea at 3:00 a.m.

Ohtani was unable to play in the 2017 Classic due to an injury to his ankle. He was already a superstar in Japan, and this was to be his introduction to the world. Baseball fans knew about the second coming of Babe Ruth, and it was a major blow not only for the Japanese team, but also for those waiting to see what the hype was all about. Japan would reach the semi-finals in 2017 and their opponents were none other than Team USA. There was no Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Trea Turner, or Kyle Schwarber, as a matter of fact only Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt are hold overs from that 2017 team, and they both had not so stellar performances that year. Team USA was the underdog as they prepared to take on Japan on an overcast and rainy night at Dodgers Stadium.

I had only purchased tickets for the Championship game in 2017 because I wanted to be there. I had no clue which teams would be in it, it was just a matter of being at the Championship for a historical event, and little did I know how historical it would be. Somewhere along I-5 south, we stopped at a rest area where I saw another fellow traveler and asked if he was going to the game. He said he was going to that night’s semi-final only between the U.S. and Japan. We spoke for a few a minutes and then went our separate ways. While our journey continued, I decided to check to see if there happened to be any tickets left for that night’s game and there was, so I was able to pick some up for the nose bleeds along the right field line.

When we got to L.A. our AirBnb was only about a mile and half from Dodgers Stadium so we decided to walk. I’m a huge Dodgers fan, and this would be my first trip to Dodgers Stadium so I was doubly excited to be going. The first thing I did was buy a Dodger Dog and drink. Sadly, the Dodger Dog was very underwhelming. It was a cold and grey sky as we took our seats but luckily, they were covered as a night steady rain came would come down throughout the night. The crowd buzzed when it was announced that the first pitch would be thrown out by both legendary Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, and Dodgers’ hero, Japan’s own Hideo Nomo.

Japan’s Tomoyuki Sugano, who tied with teammate Kodai Senga with 16 strikeouts to lead the 2017 tournament, started for the Japan and made quick work of the U.S. team through the first three innings only allowing a single to Buster Posey in the top of the third.

The U.S. would draw blood first in the top of the fourth when Christian Yelich reached second on an error and scored off a base hit by Andrew McCutchen. The Samurai would tie the game up when second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi would hit a homerun off reliever Nate Jones who had come in after Tanner Roark had pitched four amazing shutout innings for Team USA. The homerun was a punch in the gut for Team USA and their fans as Kikuchi wasn’t even the biggest threat in Japan’s lineup, but then in the eighth Team USA scrapped its way back. Brandon Crawford singled with one out, followed by a double by Ian Kinsler to move Crawford to third which brough up Adam Jones. The rain continued to come down steadily and the playing conditions were getting worse when Jones took the first offering from Kodai Senga and chopped it to the third baseman Nobuyuki Matsuda who slipped on the grass and couldn’t handle the ball cleanly which allowed Crawford to score and giving Team USA a lead, they would not let go.

So, as we went into the 2023 matchup, where once again Team USA would face Japan, I was hoping that lightning would strike twice. In 2017 not only did they beat Japan in the semi-finals, but they easily routed an undefeated Team Puerto Rico by a score of 8-0 in the championship. This time Japan was their opponent in the championship, but also undefeated.

I was excited to see Team USA take the early lead off Trea Turner’s third home run in as many games, but that lead was quickly erased in the bottom half of the second inning when Japan’s superstar Munetaka Murakami took the first pitch he saw from Merrill Kelly and deposited it 432 feet into the right field stands. That’s when the sinking feeling began for me. Pepper shaking Lars Nootbaar would drive in Kazuma Okamoto after two, and two innings later Okamoto would hit a home run that make the score 3-1. The only real highlight left for Team USA was a ten pitch at bat by Kyle Schwarber in the eighth that ended with a solo home run and Team USA getting to within one, and a guarantee that Mike Trout would have one more at bat in the ninth.

The at bat between Trout and Ohtani will go down in history as one of the most exciting moments in baseball as the two best players in the game today came head on with the best they had to offer. Ohtani would come out ahead striking out Trout on an 88.2 mph sweeping slider after having thrown four fastballs, the last of which hit 101.6 mph, to give Samurai Japan the World Baseball Classic title.

That Championship game didn’t end up how I wanted, heck, if it wasn’t for Mexico’s bullpen, I could have easily seen them being crowned the champions, but my heart was still in it for Team USA who were simply beat by a better team all around. I was surprised to see them make it as far as they did on the backs of those bats.

As exciting as that game was, and the memories from the entirety of the tournament had been, there is nothing like watching Ohtani play in real life. No matter how many times you watch him play on TV, that will never compare to seeing him play in real life, and if you can get inside the ballpark as soon as you can to truly enjoy the experience. The swarms of photographers who follow his every move, the legions of fans who shout out to him in hopes that he will just look in their direction and wave. If you’ve ever seen an old clip of how the fans reacted with The Beatles, that’s the only way I can describe the scene around Shohei Ohtani. I was fortunate enough to be at Ohtani’s Major League pitching debut against Oakland in 2018, and then again in 2022 I witnessed him hit career homerun number 101, but it was in the middle of the game as Ohtani returned to the dugout from the clubhouse where he brushed past and with that, I will never forget the day that I was touched by an Angel.