Even if it didn’t help grow the game worldwide, even if it didn’t give players a chance to represent their countries, even if it didn’t provide exciting baseball to break up the monotony of spring training, the World Baseball Classic would be worth it, because it has done this year what in five seasons the Angels could not: allow the two best players in the world to play games that matter.
Since 2018—Shohei Ohtani’s first season in MLB—he and Mike Trout have never finished higher than third place. Between the teammates, they have won two of the past four American League MVP awards—Trout in center field, Ohtani at pitcher and DH—and finished second twice more, but they have not enjoyed a single winning season. They have not even played a meaningful game after the All-Star break.
But Ohtani’s Team Japan and Trout’s Team USA have streaked through the WBC, and, after the U.S. routed Cuba on Sunday, 14–2, and Japan walked off Mexico on Monday, 6–5, they earned the right to meet in Tuesday’s final. It’s hard to imagine a better matchup: the U.S.’s All-Star lineup against a collection of Japanese studs at the plate and on the mound. But mostly: Trout vs. Ohtani.
“I think it’s good for baseball,” said Japan center fielder Lars Nootbaar, who was born in the U.S. and said this was the matchup he most hoped to see in the final.
So as not to inflame geopolitical tensions, Mexico lefty Patrick Sandoval—and Ohtani and Trout’s L.A. teammate—declined to identify his rooting interest. “Both of them,” he said, laughing. “I’m playing both sides.” He said the game would be good for “[the Angels], the sport, the world—they’re gonna put on a good show.”
And they both crave the moment. On Monday, with Japan down a run entering the bottom of the ninth, Ohtani walloped the first pitch he saw, tore off his batting helmet before he made it to first base and thrust his arms into the air and roared after he motored into second—a show of emotion he never displays in Angels red.
“It’s been a while since I was playing in a win-or-lose game, a playoff-atmosphere game,” he said afterward, through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara.
Meanwhile, Trout can’t stop gushing about the tournament. “This is the funnest experience I have had on the baseball field,” Trout said last week, adding, “For me, being part of this atmosphere, it’s special. It means a lot to me, and I knew going in it was going to be a fun time. But I never knew it was going to be this fun.”
Both players have recently expressed some frustration that the Angels have been so moribund during their time there. “I have a rather negative impression of this season,” Ohtani said in October, after L.A. finished 73–89. “It’s getting to a point where we’ve got to win,” Trout said this spring. (Ohtani’s displeasure is somewhat more concerning for Angels fans; he can become a free agent after this season and declined last month to pay even lip service to the idea that he would like to remain in L.A., while Trout’s contract runs through 2030.)
In any case, if they want to enjoy winning, Tuesday might be their best chance. Fans are not guaranteed the direct Ohtani-Trout pitcher-hitter matchup many coveted. Because Ohtani is expected to start Opening Day on the mound for the Angels, he is scheduled to play only DH on Tuesday. Japan announced Monday night that lefty Shōta Imanaga would start; presumably that leaves Padres righty Yu Darvish to follow him in relief.
But manager Hideki Kuriyama said after Monday’s game there is “not a zero chance” that Ohtani might also pitch in relief. Ohtani himself said, “Mentally, I will be prepared to throw.” He said it might be a challenge to squeeze in a pitching warm-up between at bats, but he did it in 2016, for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters—he would hit, then dart to the bullpen to throw, then return to the plate for his next turn.
Ohtani also possesses a flair for the dramatic. He started the 2021 All-Star Game at pitcher and DH because, he said, he knew fans wanted to see it. He launched balls off the scoreboard in batting practice before Monday’s game in what he called an attempt to send a message to Team Mexico: “If you leave a ball up there,” he said, “that’s what’s going to happen.” And given his reaction in the ninth inning, it’s hard to imagine he would turn down a chance to close the title-winning game for Japan.
Even if he just hits, though, he and Trout are sure to captivate baseball fans across the world. Sandoval hoped to watch if his travel back to Arizona for the rest of spring training allowed it. He has never seen these two play in a big moment. Neither has anyone else.