Ohtani plans to hit and pitch in the finals of the World Baseball Classic against Team USA, he said after spearheading Japan's rollicking 6-5 come-from-behind semifinal win against Mexico on Monday night, though his time on the mound will come in an unfamiliar role: as a relief pitcher.
The last time Ohtani pitched out of the bullpen was in 2016, when he was 22 years old and in the postseason with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Ohtani threw one blemish-free inning and unleashed a pair of fastballs clocked at 165 kilometers per hour -- approximately 102.5 mph, harder than any pitch he has thrown in his five seasons with the Los Angeles Angels.
Ohtani last started five days ago, throwing 71 pitches in Samurai Japan's quarterfinal victory against Italy. Never since he arrived in Major League Baseball has Ohtani thrown on four or fewer days of rest, putting him in a position to follow Japan's starter, left-hander Shota Imanaga, as well as San Diego Padres star Yu Darvish, who is expected to throw in the middle innings.
All of it sets up the possibility of Ohtani standing 60 feet, 6 inches from his friend and teammate Trout, the captain of the powerful U.S. team that trounced Cuba 14-2 in the semifinals.
"Not only Mike Trout, but one through nine in that order is filled with superstars, household names," Ohtani said. "Just excited to face that lineup. It's a great thing for Japanese baseball."
The game between Japan and Mexico was a great thing for any fan of the game -- taut, tense, crisp, with moment after heroic moment. Ohtani featured in the most imperative moment. Japan, which had come back from a 3-0 deficit with a three-run home run from Boston Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida, frittered away the advantage and trailed 5-4 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning.
Ohtani, leading off against St. Louis Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos, stroked a double into right-center field. As he stood on second base, Ohtani screamed toward Japan's dugouts and raised his arms in exultation twice.
"It's been a while since I was playing in a win-or-lose game, a playoff atmosphere game," said Ohtani, who has not reached the postseason with the Angels. "So obviously, we couldn't lose, and I wanted to get the guys riled up in the dugout."
Gallegos walked Yoshida, who was lifted for pinch runner Ukyo Shuto, and proceeded to face his third straight elite hitter, Nippon Professional Baseball home run champion Munetaka Murakami. After striking out in his first three at-bats, Murakami more than atoned, smashing a 111 mph line drive off the center-field fence, scoring a rejoicing Ohtani and a sliding Shuto to set off a Japanese celebration.
Without the ninth-inning heroics, Ohtani would be headed back to Arizona to finish spring training with the Angels. Instead, he'll try to replicate the results of that semifinal game in 2016. On that day, his pitching coach -- Kazuyuki Atsuzawa, currently the bullpen coach for Samurai Japan -- told Ohtani in the fifth inning that if the Fighters held a lead, he would pitch the ninth. Ohtani said he took an at-bat, went to throw in a bullpen, took another at-bat and went into the game.
This time, he said, "I will be prepared. Obviously, I'm DHing, so it's going to be hard to find that time to get hot in the bullpen."
Ohtani figures he'll manage. Just being in the finals, in meaningful games, is an experience worth cherishing.
"Obviously, it's a big accomplishment to get to the championship series, but there's a huge difference from being in first and second," Ohtani said, "so I'm going to do all I can to get that first place."