MIAMI: Shohei Ohtani delivered a fairytale 3-2 victory for Japan over the United States on Tuesday as the Asian powerhouses won the World Baseball Classic for a record third time. Home runs from Munetaka Murakami and Kazuma Okamoto helped put Japan ahead before Los Angeles Angels superstar Ohtani closed out the win from the mound in the ninth inning.

In a perfectly scripted finale at Miami’s LoanDepot Park, Ohtani struck out Angels teammate and US captain Mike Trout to clinch Japan’s third WBC victory following triumphs in 2006 and 2009. Two-way threat Ohtani, the 2021 American League Most Valuable Player who has earned comparisons to Babe Ruth since arriving in Major League Baseball, said the win was the highlight of his career. “It’s definitely number one,” Ohtani told FOX television through a translator. “It’s got to be up there. It was a storybook ending.”

“More than anything, I appreciate this tournament, this whole situation, this whole atmosphere,” added Ohtani, who was named tournament MVP. Ohtani had fired up Japan with a rousing pre-game speech in which he urged his teammates to “stop admiring” an American lineup regarded as the strongest US baseball team ever assembled. “Obviously, the US lineup, one through nine, they’re all household names, superstars,” Ohtani said afterward.

“All the Japanese guys know them. So I didn’t want us to be passive. Show respect — but stay aggressive, stay confident. That’s why I gave that speech.” The star-studded US team, defending champions after winning the last edition of the tournament in 2017, were left ruing their inability to get on top of Japan’s pitchers. Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Trea Turner blasted the hosts to a 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning with a solo shot to left field.

Runners stranded

But Japan hit back immediately with Murakami — the hero of Japan’s walk-off win over Mexico in Monday’s semifinal — launching a home run to right-center field in the bottom of the second off US starter Merrill Kelly. Kelly’s problems were only just beginning, with the Arizona right-hander giving up singles to Okamoto and Sosuke Genda before walking Yuhei Nakamura to load the bases.

That prompted US skipper Mark DeRosa to pull Kelly, with Aaron Loup brought in to get out of the jam. Loup managed to emerge from the situation relatively unscathed, with Japan picking up just one more run for a 2-1 lead after Lars Nootbaar grounded out to score Okamoto.

Japan extended their lead in the bottom of the fourth when Okamoto crushed a fly ball to left field off US reliever Kyle Freeland to make it 3-1. The Americans threatened to haul themselves back into contention in the fifth but left Mookie Betts and Nolan Arenado stranded on base. It was a similar story in the top of the seventh when Jeff McNeil took a leadoff walk before Betts singled to leave US runners on first and second with no outs.

Once again though, the US were unable to cash in, with Trout lining out to right fielder Kensuke Kondoh before a double-play ended the inning. Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama turned to Yu Darvish to lock it down in the eighth. But after getting rid of Arenado, the San Diego Padres pitcher was jolted by a monster home run from Kyle Schwarber, who launched a fly ball into the upper tiers to make it a one-run game.

Devin Williams went scoreless through the eighth inning, setting up a dream final inning, with Ohtani pitching to close out the game. Ohtani started nervously by walking McNeil, but Betts grounded into a double play to leave Japan just one out from victory. That left Ohtani needing to dispose of Trout to clinch the victory, and the US captain struck out swinging to end the game. – AFP