The two best baseball players in the world’s eyes locked for a split second, long enough to acknowledge each other and the sheer improbability of what was happening.
Top of the ninth. Two outs. A one-run match. In the batter’s box stood Mike Trout, and on the pitcher’s mound was Shohei Ohtani. When this was over, they would again be Los Angeles Angels teammates, but in this moment, this perfect moment, they were foes.
Three minutes later, when the at-bat of a lifetime ended, Ohtani was mobbed by his Samurai Japan teammates, the new World Baseball Classic champions, and Trout was skulking back to the Team USA dugout, having swung through a frisbee slider on a full count that cemented Japan’s 3-2 triumph Tuesday night.
In a tournament that had everything, a three-week sprint that brought the intensity and stakes of October baseball to March, it was only fitting that the dream scenario played out in the most dramatic of fashions.
“I believe this is the best moment in my life,” said Ohtani, the 28-year-old two-way player who by sheer force wrested away the title of best player alive from Trout, whose grip on it seemed unbreakable.
The two aren’t just generational players. They are all-timers, the best of the best, and the crowd of 36,058 at LoanDepot Park, accompanied by tens of millions of viewers around the globe, witnessed the mathematically improbable turn real then metamorphose into something even better.
The possibility of the moment emerged immediately after Samurai Japan, as the No. 1-ranked team in international baseball is nicknamed, clinched a WBC final spot Monday night with a breathtaking walk-off win against Mexico. The reigning Olympic gold medalists arrived ran roughshod through pool play and the quarterfinals, hopeful they would meet the powerful Team USA, with its countless All-Stars and billion-dollar lineup, in the final. When they did, a great baseball game broke out, full of matchups between elite hitters and pitchers, featuring mistake-free defense, ever ready to tilt in either team’s favor.
At the start of the night, Ohtani led his team down the third-base line holding the Japanese flag, while Trout did the same along the first-base line with the Stars and Stripes. Though they stopped short of the plate, it was as though they were presaged to meet there eventually.
“As a baseball fan, everybody wanted to see it,” Trout said. “He won Round 1.”
Ultimately, it was by knockout, with Ohtani dispatching Trout from the box and Team USA from a tournament that nearly chewed it up in pool play.
The mighty Dominican Republic had lost before the knockout round, the WBC far from a chalk affair, so to see Japan vs. USA, and to imagine Ohtani vs. Trout like the tiniest nesting doll inside of it, tantalized baseball fans old and new.
And then it happened at 10:40 p.m. ET, after Ohtani, pitching in relief for the first time since clinching a Japan Series appearance for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2016, induced a double play from Mookie Betts, erasing his leadoff walk to Jeff McNeil. Ohtani had entered the game after warming up between at-bats as a designated hitter, and his slow, calculated walk to the mound — the product of him awaiting a replay review — nevertheless looked straight out of a Western, the big, strong man with his hat pulled down sauntering toward trouble.
Trout, walking off the field, looked over his shoulder and stole a glance, fully aware that he was due up third. By the time he made it into the batter’s box, they saw each other and the unspoken was obvious: This was the biggest at-bat of their careers, seeing as Ohtani’s five seasons with the Angels have produced zero playoff appearances and Trout’s one postseason, in 2014, ended with a sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals. Trout took a deep breath, settled himself and readied for what was to come: power vs. power, skill vs. skill, greatness vs. greatness.
“I thought it was like a manga,” Japan outfielder Kazuma Okamoto said, “like a comic book.”
Trout stared at an 88 mph slider just below the zone for ball one, and the battle was on. In July, when Trout was named the captain for Team USA, he pledged to recruit the sort of team that could help the Americans repeat as WBC champions. He had never played in the tournament before, and as it went along — as his friendship with Betts deepened, as he remembered what it was like to play in games that felt like they mattered — the meaning of the WBC sharpened in his mind.
“It was probably the funnest 10 days I’ve ever had,” Trout said, later continuing: “I can’t really express what’s different about it. You can just feel it in your veins. It’s a special, special feeling.”
The second pitch, a fastball, blew by Trout’s mighty swing at 100 mph. It was Ohtani announcing his presence in a fashion few pitchers can. He had thrown another 100 mph heater earlier in the day, delivering a pregame speech to Samurai Japan that urged the team to regard itself on the same plane as its superstar-laden opponent.
“Let’s stop admiring them,” Ohtani said. “If you admire them, you can’t surpass them. We came here to surpass them, to reach the top. For one day, let’s throw away our admiration for them and just think about winning.”
Ohtani returned to the fastball on the third pitch and yanked it outside to move the count to 2-1. The at-bat could have ended here with a weak grounder or a soft single or a gap double or any of an infinite number of permutations, but the game was not yet done with Ohtani vs. Trout.
“With Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout ending that game the way they did, I think baseball won again,” stated Lars Nootbaar, the Los Angeles-born-and-raised St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who had become a cult hero leading off for Samurai Japan. “I just think this WBC as a whole kind of elevated the game, and I hope the exposure that it got creates baseball fans all over the world.”
Ohtani also elevated, throwing a high fastball at 100 mph past a swinging Trout again on the fourth pitch. The at-bat was turning into something bigger, something memorable, something that helped inspire Ohtani to play in the tournament despite the vagaries of two-way play making a normal 162-game season a marathon.
The best pitch of all was the sixth, an 87 mph slider, the sweepy sort that starts on the inside corner and ends up outside the strike zone. Trout swung and missed. Japan exulted, destiny fulfilled. Team USA sulked, opportunity blown. The Americans had gone 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, didn’t cash in on Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber home runs and couldn’t keep Japan’s offense in check long enough — and it made them vulnerable to one of the best sliders in the world inducing the rare three-swing-and-misses strikeout by Trout.
“That slider was nasty,” Team USA third baseman Nolan Arenado said. “It was a great pitch. If Mike Trout’s not hitting it, I don’t think anybody else is.”
Trout took no solace in that. He wanted so badly to win, and he didn’t. Ohtani was the one on the field taking celebratory pictures with the WBC gold medal hanging from his neck — with Roki Sasaki, the 21-year-old fireballer who will eventually join Ohtani in MLB, and another with Yu Darvish, now the elder statesman of Japanese pitchers.