Shohei’s comet: What we need to appreciate about the WBC’s awe-inspiring Ohtani-Trout conclusion

The final plate appearance of the World Baseball Classic would've lit up the night even if it didn’t have the names. How many crucial or championship-deciding games are actually decided in the fourth inning? How many sputter to an end on an excuse-me check swing? Or a pop-up in foul territory?

This was not that. This was a rope stretched to maximum tension, then tugged definitively to one side in a scintillating final showdown. The names, though, drew even more eyes to the moment when Shohei Ohtani and Team Japan closed out Mike Trout and Team USA to win the 2023 WBC.

Prior to Tuesday, the duo led parallel lives expanding the known limits of baseball excellence in service of an MLB team, the Los Angeles Angels, preternaturally gifted at wasting it. But when Team USA and Team Japan advanced to the WBC final, the first in six years because of the pandemic, a new possibility opened up, one that would send Ohtani and Trout headlong into each other.

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When further information emerged that Ohtani, the two-way player extraordinaire who usually starts as a pitcher, would be available only to close the game? Well, the dreamworks really kicked into high gear, into the kind of overdrive that almost always leads to disappointment.

Still, the watchers waited — with the sort of intrinsically optimistic, bated breath necessary to envision the majesty of a moment that might never arrive — to see these great players wage a decisive tug of war at a distance of 60 feet, 6 inches.

With the ninth inning in the offing, it was still on course, and word ricocheted through all corners of the baseball-speaking world. When Team USA’s Mookie Betts grounded into a double play, everything else went dark.

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And there it was: Ohtani vs. Trout, mano a mano, with the game on the line.

Six pitches to change the world

The pure procession of pitches really was remarkable. It went like this, for posterity:

Pitch 1: Sweeping slider off the plate. Ball 1.

Pitch 2: 100 mph heat down the middle and low in the zone, swung on and missed. Strike 1.

Pitch 3: 100 mph dart off the plate outside, calmly spit on. Ball 2.

Pitch 4: 100 mph heat down the middle, a little higher, swung on and missed again. Strike 2.

Pitch 5: 102 mph missile yanked into the opposite batter’s box, a flare of uncontrollable energy escaped from the vacuum of perfect baseballing pressure. Ball 3.

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Pitch 6: Another sweeping slider, this one perfect. Just a dastardly pitch that pointed its gaze at the inside corner, then the middle of the plate, then blazed across the frame, past the bat and out of sight. Strike 3. Ballgame. Roars of awe.

Each combatant pushed the other to his limit, but without any wasted moments. There were no borderline called strikes. There was only Ohtani vs. Trout. Then, dust settled, there was Ohtani on top — the MVP of Japan’s 7-0 tournament, its third championship in five tournaments — mere days from embarking on a contract year with Trout’s Angels, with half a billion dollars and perhaps even more interested baseball fans tied up in the intrigue.

The impact of this WBC and this matchup

It’s difficult to find comparisons for such a collision of world-beating talents on an international stage, but many minds leapt to the realm of soccer, to the most recent World Cup, to the delirious duel between Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe in the final.

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It’s inexact, because of course it is, but it’s also instructive. The mystique that the World Cup just has, the WBC is building.

Boxed in by a season that already uses every last gasp of playable weather, baseball has shoehorned its international tournament into March, in the weeks usually used to ramp up for MLB’s grueling, 162-game slate. This year, the result was an uneven distribution of fervor. While position players, generally less inclined toward repetitive use injuries, signed up in droves, the rate of top pitcher participation for proud challengers such as Japan and the Dominican Republic dwarfed Team USA’s. Given Japan’s utter dominance, there’s no good reason to think the ultimate result might've been different with different American arms, but the feeling behind it all matters.

That feeling undeniably shifted Tuesday when Ohtani jogged in from the bullpen and Trout stepped into the box. Even with the joyous enthusiasm of the WBC well-documented, the vast majority of active stars — including those raised outside the U.S. — simply didn’t grow up seeing legacies cemented in international competition. The WBC is and has been a huge honor, a thrill, but it’s hard to believe this tournament held the same historical weight as winning a World Series or eclipsing storied individual records in MLB or Japan’s NPB.

But whatever gap existed there has shrunk or been eliminated over the past week — by Ohtani, by Trout, even by 2020 playoff hero Randy Arozarena going Main Character again in Mexico’s semifinal run.

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The best baseball players on earth in 2023 played the biggest moments of their careers not in Angels jerseys but representing their countries. And everyone gathered around to relish the spectacle. That will have lasting consequences.

The waiting is the hardest part

Since 2018, Trout has taken 55 plate appearances in the ninth inning or later with the Angels down one or tied. Ohtani has taken 58. The “get to your TV” moments happen — they do. They just don’t happen nearly as much as we’d like. To wit, slap-hitting Angels second baseman David Fletcher has taken 60 of those plate appearances in the same span. No offense to Fletcher, but if baseball were actually scripted — as the WBC must've seemed Tuesday — a great many of his moments in the spotlight would've been redistributed to Trout and Ohtani.

Overcome by the electricity of seeing our long-suffering heroes reach the pedestal they have long been denied, the immediate instinct is to seek more ways to replicate it. Baseball, after all, isn’t scripted, but it is an entertainment product. It is a created world in which the rules can and do change.

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MLB, the entity behind both the most prestigious, richest, most talent-laden league in the world and also the WBC, could certainly give in to the temptation to try to legislate more Trout-Ohtani moments into the game. Arguably, commissioner Rob Manfred & Co. attempted some version of this by expanding the postseason — a generous move the bumbling Angels proved more than equal to — but even more extreme measures are possible. Changing substitution rules. Once again injecting stakes into the All-Star Game. Creating a midseason tournament a la English soccer or the NBA’s reported idea.

Those are all tempting on some level, for the very good and understandable reason of wanting to see what we just saw. Again. More. But they would also be missing the point. Baseball forces each player and each team to tackle the challenge at hand, one strike and one out at a time. The linear structure, the lack of an option to shuffle up the deck or skip ahead, gives the game its rigor — its comparison and its contrast.

You have to have the David Fletcher at-bats to fully appreciate the Mike Trout at-bats. You have to weather Clayton Kershaw’s stumbles under the bright lights to appreciate Shohei Ohtani’s instant excellence. Pretty much everyone recognizes that this entire spirited WBC was a boon for the game, that the Ohtani-Trout meeting was exactly what the world wanted. But this was a comet streaking across the sky. It wouldn’t burn nearly as brightly if it were on demand.

The waiting — until the next batter, the next year or the next WBC — is part of the magic.