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‘We see who Shohei is.’ How Shohei Ohtani and Japan advanced to WBC semifinals

Shohei Ohtani throws a pitch.
Shohei Ohtani of Japan delivers a pitch in a pool play game against China in Tokyo last week.
(Eugene Hoshiko / Associated Press)
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Shohei Ohtani made his presence known when he struck out the first batter of Japan’s 9-3 win over Italy in a World Baseball Classic quarterfinal game Thursday, but that wasn’t his most exciting strikeout of his outing.

That belongs to his strikeout of Vinnie Pasquantino in the second inning, which came on his 102-mph fastball. That pitch was the fastest he’s thrown since signing with the Angels in 2018. His previous fastest pitch was clocked at 101.4 mph, which he threw Sept. 10, 2022, against the Houston Astros. Ohtani had thrown a 102.5 mph fastball before, when he was still playing for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Nippon Professional Baseball.

But Ohtani’s command faltered in the fifth inning, after he hit two batters and gave up two hits and two earned runs, which prompted Samurai Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama to pull him from his outing before he could get out of the inning.

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Though he remained in the game as the designated hitter, Ohtani’s final line for his start also included five strikeouts, four hits, a walk and 71 pitches thrown in 4 2/3 innings. At the plate, Ohtani went 1 for 4 with two runs scored and a walk, and struck out once. Ohtani is hitting .438 (7 for 16) with a home run, three doubles and eight RBIs along with a 2.08 ERA, 10 strikeouts and one walk on the mound while winning both of his starts in the WBC.

Ohtani would be available on four days’ rest to pitch in a possible final on Tuesday in Miami, though he’s never pitched on four days’ rest in his MLB career.

“When we see Shohei playing, not only the players but also the Japanese baseball fans, all the nation is feeling something extra,” Kuriyama told reporters after the game, adding: “These kind of moments, this is how I feel the sense of Ohtani. This is Shohei. This is Shohei. When he plays a must-win game like tonight, we see who Shohei is.”

Japan’s Shohei Ohtani hit his first home run at the World Baseball Classic vs. Australia on Sunday. The fan who caught the ball politely shared with the crowd.

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For Japan, it is the fifth time the nation has advanced to the semifinals of the WBC and is the only team to make the semifinals of every edition of the tournament. Japan, which has outscored opponents 47-11 in five games in this year’s WBC, won the tournament in 2006 and 2009, but lost in the semifinals to Puerto Rico in 2013 and the U.S. in 2017.

Japan will face the winner of Puerto Rico and Mexico, which plays Friday, in a semifinal game in Miami on Monday.

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Ohtani, who hadn’t thrown a single fastball under 98 mph, intrigued Angels fans awake on the West Coast when he dealt a 100-mph sinker for a ball against his teammate, David Fletcher — an at-bat in the top of the third that ended with the elder Fletcher brother grounding out.

And Ohtani pleasantly surprised when he got his first hit of the game, a single, after bunting in the bottom of the third. Japan took a 4-0 lead in that inning with Joe LaSorsa pitching for Italy. Kensuke Kondoh, who reached on a walk, scored on Masataka Yoshida’s groundout. Kazuma Okamoto hit a three-run home run, driving in Ohtani and Munetaka Murakami, who also reached on a walk.

Italy bit back in the top of the fifth. After Ohtani retired Vito Friscia on a groundout, he plunked his next batter, Ben DeLuzio, in the back. His next matchup with his Angels teammate resulted in Fletcher knocking a ball through a gap to right field for a single.

Angels infielder David Fletcher and his brother Dominic, a minor leaguer for the Diamondbacks, are set to play for Italy in the World Baseball Classic.

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Ohtani hit a second batter, Nicky Lopez, to load the bases with one out remaining for David’s younger brother, Dominic — who got a single off Ohtani in the first inning. And Dominic Fletcher notched another single off Ohtani to drive in Italy’s first two runs of the game. (Dominic Fletcher would also account for Italy’s other run when he homered off Yu Darvish in the eighth inning. Darvish pitched two innings of relief, allowing two hits, including the home run.)

By that point, Japan already had a pitcher warming in their bullpen. After Dominic’s RBI hit, Kuriyama came out to replace Ohtani on the mound with Hiromi Itoh.

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“In the fourth and fifth innings I struggled a bit, but until then I had good rhythm and I pitched well, I think,” Ohtani told reporters.

The momentum was short-lived for Italy, whose deficit grew again as Japan took a 7-2 lead in the bottom of the fifth. Italy pitcher Andre Pallante walked Ohtani and plunked Yoshida before being replaced by Vinny Nittoli, who gave up back-to-back doubles to Murakami and Okamoto.

Italy, managed by Hall of Famer and former Dodger Mike Piazza, advanced past the first round for the first time since 2013.

“Against a very good team, you have to be exceptional,” Piazza told reporters. “And obviously tonight we weren’t. We didn’t throw the ball well tonight. We needed our pitchers to have a very good game.”

The 2023 World Baseball Classic is underway. Here’s everything you need to know about this year’s fifth edition of the international baseball tournament.

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