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MIAMI — Featuring two of the sport’s biggest stars on opposing national teams, the final at-bat of this year’s World Baseball Classic delivered the dream confrontation between Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani that fans had longed for.
Ohtani struck out Trout in the ninth inning to save Japan’s 3-2 win in Tuesday’s World Baseball Classic final and clinch his nation’s third championship and first since 2009.
With Miami’s loanDepot Park on its feet and rocking with the high-voltage dream matchup of superstar Los Angeles Angels teammates, Ohtani set down Trout swinging to earn the save.
Ohtani, who started as Japan’s designated hitter, took the mound to protect the 3-2 ninth-inning lead over the defending champion U.S.
“My dream has come true,” Ohtani said of Samurai Japan’s victory. “It was such a relief I was able to close out the game. But it’s sad this tournament is over.”
Asked to comment on his matchup with Trout, Ohtani said, “I knew he would be the final batter of the game if I could retire the first two. I managed to get him (Mookie Betts) to hit into a double play and faced Trout in the best possible situation.”
Trout, a three-time American League MVP, said, “As a baseball fan, everyone wanted to see it.” Joking about an implied rematch, Trout added, “He won Round 1.”
“He’s got nasty stuff. He’s throwing 101, 102 (miles an hour). He threw me a good pitch at the end, a slider.”
U.S. manager Mark DeRosa said, “The whole world got to see Ohtani come in, big spot, battling. It’s kind of how it was scripted. I just wish it would have went different…with Mike popping one (home run).”
Ohtani was named MVP of the tournament.
Trailing 1-0 in the second, Munetaka Murakami, the hero of Japan’s 6-5 sayonara win in Monday’s thrilling semifinal against Mexico, tied it with a massive home run.
Kazuma Okamoto followed with a single off U.S. starter Merrill Kelly, and scored the go-ahead run on a groundout. The slugger then sent one deep to left-center in the fourth off the Americans’ third pitcher, Kyle Freeland, to push Japan’s lead to 3-1.
The U.S. took a 1-0 second-inning lead on Trea Turner’s fifth home run, tying him with Lee Seung Yeop for the most in a single WBC.
With a 3-1 lead, manager Hideki Kuriyama began going to a new pitcher every inning. Hiroto Takahashi, Hiromi Ito and Taisei Ota each put up a zero, while Ohtani began trotting out to the bullpen when he was not due to come to the plate.
Japan’s scoreless-innings streak came to an end when the winning pitcher of its last WBC final, Yu Darvish, gave up Kyle Schwarber’s eighth-inning solo homer. Before Japan’s oldest player got out of the inning with a runner on, Ohtani was warming up in the bullpen.
Ohtani walked the first batter he faced but got another American superstar, Betts, to hit into a double play and bring up Trout.
“I saw him take a big deep breath to try and control his emotions,” DeRosa said. “I can’t even imagine being in that moment, the two best players on the planet locking horns as teammates in that spot.”
Trout said he made eye contact with Ohtani before the at-bat. “I looked at him. He’s a competitor. That’s why he’s the best. He likes to compete.”
Ohtani fell behind on the count, 2-1, then Trout swung and missed at a 99.8 mph fastball, evening the count. Ohtani’s 101.6 mph fastball was low and outside for a ball. Trout then swung and missed at an 87.2 mph slider.
El Segundo native Lars Nootbaar, the first foreign-born WBC player for Japan, told MLB Network that watching Ohtani finish the game against Trout was unlike anything seen before nor will be seen again.
“I was standing in the outfield wondering how the script’s going to end, because you knew that’s how it was going to come down,” he said.
“I love this team, I’m so thankful they allowed me to come play and accepted me,” he added.
In Higashimatsuyama, Saitama Prefecture near Tokyo, Tatsuji Enokida, 84, and his wife Kazuko, 81, grandparents of center fielder Nootbaar, who scored in the second inning, were among the residents gathering to cheer the team on.
“I am overwhelmed with pride and happiness for my grandson,” said Tatsuji, tearing up when Japan clinched the championship.
“Star-studded Team USA was strong, but we were very determined,” Murakami said. “We gave up the opening run (in the top of the second) and wanted to tie the game as quickly as possible. I’m glad I did it with one swing.”
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel congratulated Japan on its triumph and praised both teams on Twitter, calling it a “poetic ending for Ohtani-san to strike out his teammate to end the game.”