Well, now. Japan walked it off against Mexico, earning the chance to face the United States in Tuesday’s World Baseball Classic final, and those who hadn’t been driven away by the harrumphing over Edwin Diáz’s season-ending injury after closing out a win by Puerto Rico last week got the most dreamy of dream matches.
Teammates on the Los Angeles Angels, Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani squared off in the WBC final. It was Japan’s third trip to that final dance and first since 2009. It was Trout’s first appearance in any kind of championship or championship-aiming game since his third full major league season.
The game’s greatest all-around position player, still, against its unicorn of a virtuoso two-way player. Anyone who says this was what Trout and Ohtani really signed up for when Ohtani joined the Angels and Trout extended with them is fooling him or herself. But it slammed an exclamation point down upon this WBC in ways that would have been ridiculed as corny in a Hollywood treatment.
There was Trout, with Mets jack-of-most-trades Jeff McNeil aboard on a leadoff walk and two out—thanks to Mookie Betts dialing Area Code 4-6-3—for the United States. There was Ohtani on the mound for Japan. There was Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt on deck. And there was Ohtani throwing a slider just away from Trout’s swing. Strike three. 3-2, Japan. Third WBC title for Japan in three trips to the penultimate game.
“I was hoping,” Goldschmidt said postgame, “when Jeff got on base, that if Mike hit a two-run homer to win the game, that everyone was going to go bananas, that the world was going to end.”
“Great pitch,” said Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado. “If Mike Trout’s not hitting it, I don’t think anybody else is.”
“It sucks it didn’t go the way I wanted it to,” Trout said postgame. Then, he tipped his fins to his Angels teammate in Japan’s silks. “He won Round One.” Suggesting there might be yet one more showdown between the pair in another WBC a few years hence. Might. Who knows? Both Angel teammates say they’ll be back for the next one.
Teammates and friends in MLB, Trout and Ohtani (and everyone else partaking) knew this one had the potential of immortality. After Ohtani ignited the rally that pushed Japan past Mexico at the eleventh hour, with a leadoff double, he let the world know just how aware of it he really was.
“Obviously, it’s a big accomplishment to get to the championship series,” he told reporters, “but there’s a huge difference between getting first and second. I’m going to do all I can to get to first place.” He made good on it.
Dream makers loved nothing more than to see Ohtani on the mound with Trout at the plate. Ohtani said he’d be available for bullpen duty in the title game. If brought in and Trout was on his inning’s menu, there wouldn’t really be words to describe the moment’s electricity.
That wouldn’t stop assorted observers and pundits from hunting those words. They wouldn’t all be hosannas, either. From the moment Diáz went down with a patellar tendon tear that put paid to his 2023 season for the Mets while celebrating a Puerto Rico win, the volume of screaming bloody murder has equaled that of reminding one and all that freak injuries—which is precisely what Diáz’s was—can happen any old time.
In spring training. En route a spring training camp. In your own home or driveway. At the supermarket or the mall. Even playing with your children at home or on the beach or in a park. Celebrating after MLB wins regular, postseason, or postseason-sending alike. Or, suffering a non-contact anterior cruciate ligament tear just prior to the WBC’s beginning in the first place—as happened to Dodgers middle infielder Gavin Lux to put paid to his 2023 season, too.
My, but the lack of bleating about canceling spring training because of its dangers was enough to leave you with a bad case of tinnitus, wasn’t it? But the Mets’ top relief pitcher incurring an absolute freak injury that can happen—and has happened—any old time during an MLB season or postseason caused what seemed like half the world demanding the WBC’s demise, post haste.
Trout probably spoke for his teammates, the players on all competing WBC teams, and the fans watching those games in the ballparks and on television where possible, when he said, “It was probably the funnest ten days I’ve ever had. I can’t really express what’s different about it. You can just feel it in your veins. It’s a special, special feeling.”
Baseball was fun to play again. The WBC was fun to watch. Three trainloads of MLB players entered the WBC representing their home countries or countries to which their families have powerful enough ties. They had the time of their lives playing games that meant something to them personally. In a tournament that looked more sensibly arrayed than MLB’s competition-diluting postseason array. Jumpstarting renewed interest in baseball in the countries whom they represented.
Maybe Mets pitcher Max Scherzer’s onto something when he says move the WBC out of springtime and into the All-Star break’s time frame.
Maybe with the All-Star Game meaningless, after all, what with the infestation and continuing pestilence of regular-season interleague play, it ought to be dumped once and for all and the WBC should take center stage in mid-July.
Maybe MLB’s lords should think twice before signing off on any more Rob Manfred rule tinkerings, time-of-game twistings, and postseason maneuverings. Then, maybe they should tell him to either think of remaking MLB’s postseason as truly meaningful as the WBC proved or find another line of work. (While they’re at it, they can tell him they’ve had it with broadcast blackouts, just the way fans have had it. It hurts the lords, too.)
Maybe MLB’s lords should just think, period. Or would that be asking them to behave beyond their competence?