Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s WBC MVP, gets a meaningful taste of baseball

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MIAMI — The great tragedy of Shohei Ohtani’s MLB career — and after watching him in the finals of the World Baseball Classic, the tragedy feels like only a slight exaggeration — he never got a chance to put a team on his shoulders in October.

Because during the World Baseball Classic, on the biggest baseball stage he’s ever had the chance to take, Ohtani was overwhelming.

Japan’s two-way star delivered the hardest ball throughout the match, 118.7 mph, an MLB study. He threw the hardest pitch of the tournament at 102 mph. He also hit one of the longest homers of the tournament – 448 feet.

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And he also delivered the WBC’s most memorable speech, addressing his teammates before Tuesday’s final against the United States, reminding them that the only way to stop praising the Americans is to see them as equals.

“[Winning] It doesn’t mean we’ve reached an end goal, but it’s a passing point,” Ohtani said through a translator after Japan’s 3-2 win on Tuesday. “Our team has just begun. I think we have to connect for the future.

It’s Ohtani, for the next one, pushing even harder while keeping everything. His Los Angeles Angels haven’t played in October, and he’s doomed his entire MLB career to meaningless summer baseball, overshadowing the fire that burned so brightly the last two weeks. That was never brighter than when he faced his Angels teammate and annual MVP candidate Mike Trout with two outs in the ninth inning on Tuesday.

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“I’ve seen him. He’s a competitor, human,” Trout said. “That’s why he’s great.”

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Ohtani has told reporters in the past that playing baseball — pitching and hitting, as only he can — is his way of expressing himself. He is not verbal when speaking to the media and is sometimes relentlessly disinterested. But he is direct, pointed and unwavering in his goals.

For example, when asked what he hopes the next step in his career will be after winning the World Baseball Classic MVP, Ohtani doesn’t reflect.

“Of course the new season will start and that will be the first season,” he said through a translator. “Definitely I have to start winning and that will be the next step.”

Watching Ohtani play with a hit and the line on his face made it clear to anyone who hadn’t seen it during his time with the Angels how much winning meant to him.

“What he does in the game is what 90 percent of the guys in that clubhouse can do in Little League or in the youth leagues, and he can pull it off on the biggest stages,” United States manager Mark DeRosa said. “He’s a unicorn for the game. I think other guys will try, but I don’t think they’re going to do it at his level.

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The 28-year-old will be a free agent after this season. He said several times in recent years that he was frustrated that the Angels weren’t winning. But to see him come alive in the WBC — to see him sprint down the first base line to beat a ground ball, to call himself safe as he gets past the bag — makes him want to win, desperate for a chance to play. That thing, day by day.

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“He’s very diligent, he works very hard, and he’s very careful about how he goes about his business,” outfielder Lars Knootbar said. “It’s no surprise that he’s obviously very talented, but he uses his talent by how he works.”

Ohtani is slated to start Opening Day for the Angels against the Oakland Athletics, a game between two teams not necessarily expected to compete in their division, let alone for a title. He doesn’t have the same opportunity to enter the bullpen as a boxer would enter the ring. He doesn’t play in front of packed stadiums every day. If all the WBC players return to mediocrity, Ohtani could see an even worse return if the Angels don’t become winners this season. He found himself playing pointless baseball, chasing numbers that only mattered to him, stoic and regimented and unable to soar.

Perhaps this year the Angels will take off in time to convince him that he can play meaningful baseball for years to come. Because meaningful baseball is where Ohtani belongs, where he thrives, where he fulfills his full potential. As the WBC made clear, Shohei Ohtani playing meaningful baseball lights up the entire baseball world.

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