It’s no longer just about what’s best for Shohei Ohtani. It’s about what’s best for baseball.
Ohtani can’t sign another contract with the Angels.
Next winter, Ohtani has to move on, moving on to a team that offers him a chance to play baseball every October.
Your talent requires it. His mentality demands it.
It is made for the big stage.
That was the best conclusion to the World Baseball Classic, which concluded Tuesday night with Ohtani striking out Mike Trout with a full-count slider.
With Ohtani wrapping up a 3-2 victory over the United States, Japan won the WBC for a record third time. Ohtani was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
“Without a doubt, up to this moment, this is the best moment of my career,” Ohtani told reporters in Japanese at LoanDepot Park in Miami.
The 28-year-old two-way player said he was hopeful the Angels could have a similarly glorious finish to their next season.
“The season is about to start.” Ohtani said. “I think the next step is to win in the postseason, the World Series.”
Say it does. Let’s say the injury-prone Trout can play 140 regular-season games. Let’s say struggling Anthony Rendon can play 120. Let’s say GM Perry Minasian’s offseason moves work out. Let’s say the Angels make the playoffs for the first time in Ohtani’s six years with them.
Ohtani still has to go.
By extending their season through October, the Angels will have caught lightning in a bottle. That is not a formula for sustained success. No team owned by Arte Moreno will compete year after year after year.
Ohtani should spend the rest of his career with a franchise that hopes to make the postseason, not one that hopes to. Anything less would be a disservice not only to him but also to the sport.
How exciting was it to see Ohtani toss his glove and cap in the air after striking out Trout? How much fun was it to see him smile as much as he did throughout the tournament?
This could be every October. This should be every October.
Baseball shouldn’t have to wait three more years until the next WBC to see this version of Ohtani.
A couple of months before this tournament, Japan’s manager Hideki Kuriyama said that he had visions of a certain pitcher closing out the championship game. Asked after the win over the USA if that pitcher was Ohtani, Kuriyama told reporters in Japanese: “I’ll leave that to his imagination.”
How could Kuriyama have imagined using someone else?
Years ago, Kuriyama had convinced the 18-year-old Ohtani to sign with the Nippon-Ham Fighters instead of the Dodgers, offering him a chance to pitch and hit. During his five years with the Fighters, Kuriyama learned to trust Ohtani enough to call him up to close out a league championship series in 2016. The Fighters won the Japan Series.
What was apparent then, and what was apparent throughout this WBC, was that Ohtani doesn’t choke. He plays at the height of the circumstances.
In the semifinals of the tournament against Mexico, Ohtani started Japan’s comeback in the ninth inning. Before his at-bat, he later told MLB Network: “I had decided that he was going to get on base no matter what.”
Clearly, outs are an option for Ohtani, who drove a pitch several inches off the plate into the space between right-center for a leadoff double.
When he came out of the bullpen a day later in the ninth inning against the US, the leadoff hitter was Jeff McNeil, the reigning National League batting champion. Behind McNeil were Mookie Betts, Trout and Paul Goldschmidt.
Ohtani walked over to McNeil.
“He didn’t seem fazed by Jeff McNeil’s walk on a close pitch,” US coach Mark DeRosa told reporters in Miami. “It didn’t bother me that three MVPs were coming up to bat.”
Ohtani forced Betts to roll into a double play to set up his game-ending showdown with Trout.
Ohtani finished the WBC with a 1.86 earned run average. He won both of his starts. He also hit .435 with one home run, four doubles, eight RBIs and nine runs scored. His 10 walks were the most in the tournament.
He was more than the best player in Japan. He emerged as the team’s leader.
Ahead of the final, Ohtani delivered a calm but uplifting speech to his teammates about how they should temporarily put aside their admiration for their opponents. He mentioned how the US had famous players at every position: Goldschmidt at first base, Trout at center, Betts at right, etc.
“If you admire them, you can’t beat them,” Ohtani said. “We come here to overcome them, to get to the top. For one day, let’s throw away our admiration for them and just think about winning.”
After Japan’s victory, Ohtani continued to be a source of motivation. Right-hander Yu Darvish, 36, told reporters Ohtani told him: “Let’s do this again in three years.”
“I’ll aim for that and do the best I can,” Darvish said in Japanese.
That’s not to say Ohtani didn’t feel any pressure. Even before reaching the major leagues, he was the most popular athlete in Japan and the adoration for him has only grown ever since. In a country where more than 40% of televisions watched every one of his team’s group stage games, there was especially intense attention on him.
When he scaled the mound in the championship game, he told MLB Network, “I thought my chest was going to pop out of my chest.”
However, he continued: “Once I got on the mound, I wanted to do my best as a way to pay for baseball. He was nervous, but more than that, he was thankful.”
Here’s another way Ohtani can give back to the game that has given him so much: He can find a new team next winter, one that offers him the kind of scenario this WBC had. This is where he belongs. This is where he can do the most, both for his legacy and for the game he loves.