Japan walks off against Mexico to set up WBC final vs. USA
MIAMI — Roki Sasaki, the Japanese ace proclaimed to be the next Shohei Ohtani, didn’t perform to that lofty standard Monday night against Mexico.
So it was up to the actual Ohtani to get the job done.
Ohtani put on a spectacular batting practice display before Monday’s WBC semifinal at loanDepot Park, launching tape-measure blasts that nearly cleared the upper deck in rightfield. But his biggest impact of the night came in the ninth inning, when his leadoff double sparked a two-run rally that gave Japan a wild 6-5 walk-off victory.
The usually stoic Ohtani turned to the dugout, raised his arms and flexed upon reaching second base, an unusual show of emotion from the former MVP. But Japan followed his lead, and after Giovanny Gallegos walked Masataka Yoshida — who had smacked a tying three-run homer with two outs in the seventh — Munetaka Murakami drilled the third pitch for a two-run double to set off a wild celebration and set up Tuesday night’s championship showdown with Team USA.
“It’s been a while since I was playing in an [elimination] game, in a playoff-atmosphere game,” Ohtani said through an interpreter, as his Angels have not qualified for the postseason since his 2018 arrival. “Obviously we couldn’t lose and I wanted to get the bats rallied up in the dugout.”
Ohtani was not announced as Japan’s starting pitcher for the title game but said he will be “mentally prepared” to take the ball if necessary. He also acknowledged that as the DH, it would be difficult to find the right time to get ready in the bullpen for a relief appearance, but closing the game remains a possibility.
Ohtani said the last time he was the DH and stepped in as the closer was in 2016, when he sealed the clincher to get the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters into the Japan Series. “I was told in the fifth inning of that game there was a chance I’d be going in,” said Ohtani, who recalled warming up, getting another at-bat and then taking the mound.
For nearly seven innings Monday, it looked as if Japan might be heading home rather than having that discussion. Sasaki, whose fastball averaged 99.9 mph and maxed out at 101.8, hung a splitter with two outs in the fourth inning to Luis Arias, who hammered a three-run homer that kept Mexico in front until Yoshida’s tying blast in the seventh.
Mexico jumped in front again in the eighth on an RBI double by Alex Verdugo and an RBI single by Isaac Paredes, but the bullpen couldn’t hold it. Gallegos had to face Japan’s top three hitters to open the ninth and failed to record an out.
Afterward, Ohtani was asked what it meant for Japan to reach the title game.
“Obviously, it’s a big accomplishment,” he said. “But there’s a huge difference between getting first and second. So I’ll do all I can to get that first place.”
Notes & quotes: In the fifth, Mexico leftfielder Randy Arozarena deked the entire ballpark when he leaped to grab a roof-scraping blast off the bat of Kazuma Okamoto. After reaching over the wall, Arozarena landed back on the track but just stood there, hands on his hips, staring straight ahead. As the puzzled Okamoto kept circling the bases, the Mexico fans on the other side of the fence went crazy until Arozarena finally showed he had caught the ball.