The year’s signature baseball moment happened before the season even started. At least that’s how most fans and players usually look at the World Baseball Classic: It’s a fun preseason exhibition, but it lacks the intensity, the stakes and the star power of, say, soccer’s World Cup. Real baseball starts on MLB’s Opening Day.
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That perception shifted in a big way on March 21, in the ninth inning of the WBC final between the U.S. and Japan. Two outs, nobody on, Japan clinging to a 3–2 lead and the tournament coming down to an at bat the baseball world had been dreaming of: Shohei Ohtani on the mound, Mike Trout at the plate. The sport’s two best players—and, for added drama, Los Angeles Angels teammates—dueling with an international championship on the line.
The showdown didn’t disappoint. Ohtani started with a slider for a ball, then threw four fastballs that were all at least 99.8 mph. With the count 2–1, Trout swung and missed at a heater in what might have been the most violent hack of his career. With the count full—of course—Ohtani got him to swing through a slider on the outside corner. As measured by velocity and spin rate, it was the best breaking pitch Ohtani had thrown since arriving from Japan in 2018.
The details were impressive, but what mattered more was the vibe. It was arguably the biggest stage both players have performed on: Trout has played in all of three postseason games in his MLB career, none since 2014, while Ohtani has never been in the playoffs. And the intensity with which both stars pursued the title throughout the WBC elevated the entire event—in ’23 and beyond. Said Ohtani after he and his Japanese teammates had celebrated, “I believe this is the best moment in my life.”