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Shohei Ohtani says he would only pitch in relief for Japan in potential WBC final

Japan pitcher Shohei Ohtani winds up to throw against Italy
Japan’s Shohei Ohtani says he will only pitch in relief if his country reaches the final of the World Baseball Classic.
(Eugene Hoshiko / Associated Press)
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Shohei Ohtani told Japanese reporters Sunday that he would be available only to pitch out of the bullpen in the World Baseball Classic final Tuesday should Japan beat Mexico in the semifinals.

“I don’t think there’s a chance of me starting, but of course I’d like to prepare to pitch in relief,” Ohtani said in Japanese to reporters. “That will depend on my physical condition. Up to this point, the team has really listened to my selfish requests and there are many things I’m doing that they have tolerated.

“This is the end of the end. From here, I’d like to have a discussion with my body and make a decision.”

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Ohtani surrendered two runs on four hits and threw 71 pitches across 4⅔ innings in Japan’s quarterfinal win over Italy in Tokyo on Thursday night. One of the pitches was a 102-mph fastball — the hardest pitch he has thrown as a professional. Accounting for the time difference, Ohtani would pitch Tuesday on 4½ days’ rest. He’s never pitched on less than five days’ rest. He hasn’t pitched in relief since joining the Angels for the 2018 season.

Shohei Ohtani strikes out five in his second WBC start, and also goes 1 for 4 with two runs scored in a 9-3 win to help Japan reach the WBC semifinals.

March 16, 2023

The Angels’ two-way superstar has been one of the best pitchers and hitters in the tournament. At the plate, he’s seven for 16 (.438) with one home run, three doubles, eight walks and eight RBIs. On the mound, he’s given up two runs — both against Italy — in 8⅔ innings over two starts.

Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama declined to say whether Ohtani would pitch in the final.

“Regarding pitching, there are strategic issues and there are also considerations about his body,” Kuriyama said after Japan’s workout at loanDepot Park. “I can’t really say at this point.”

With Ohtani limited to relief, Japan could turn to Yu Darvish to start. Darvish also pitched Thursday against Italy but out of the bullpen. He gave up one run and threw 27 pitches across two innings.

Japan needs to defeat Mexico in the semifinals Monday for Tuesday’s pitching availability to matter. It’ll be Patrick Sandoval’s job to help make that irrelevant.

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The Angels left-hander will make his second start of the tournament for Mexico on Monday after holding Team USA to one run in three innings in Mexico’s upset win in Phoenix on March 12. Sandoval faced Angels teammate Mike Trout twice, striking him out once and walking him the second time.

On Monday, he’ll confront one of the other teams favored to win the tournament and Ohtani, the Angels’ other generational talent. Sandoval said he briefly spoke with Ohtani on the field Sunday between the teams’ respective workouts, but he said the impending matchup wasn’t discussed.

“Oh, absolutely, yeah, without a doubt,” the 26-year-old Sandoval said when asked if there will be trash talk in the Angels’ clubhouse after the tournament. “I’ll let Trout know, for sure [that I struck him out]. Hopefully I can let Ohtani know as well. But, yeah, it’s fun. We got a great clubhouse there and guys love to give each other crap. So it’s fun. It will be fun.”

Roki Sasaki, perhaps the best pitcher in the world not in the major leagues, will start opposite Sandoval for Japan.

Sasaki is 21. He boasts a 100-mph fastball. Last April, he tossed a perfect game with 19 strikeouts for Chiba Lotte. He followed up the outing with eight perfect innings and 14 strikeouts before he was pulled from the scoreless game out of precaution.

Trea Turner’s grand slam led the U.S. to a 9-7 win in the WBC quarterfinals over Venezuela, which lost José Altuve when a pitch hit his right thumb.

March 18, 2023

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“He’s young from an age standpoint,” Kuriyama said, “but he’s a pitcher who has advanced to this point by being a pitcher with ability who developed at the same pace with his body’s development.”

Sasaki has said his dream is to play in the majors. The question is when. Sasaki preferred not to divulge details on a timeline.

“Rather than think about when I’ll go to the major leagues, I think I have to play well in Japan first,” Sasaki said. “Then look ahead after that.”

Ohtani, 28, was once also a phenom in Japan. He’s proved pitching — and hitting — success in Japan translates to the majors. Velocity plays anywhere and both have it. Should Japan reach the final, both talents could take the mound on one of the world’s biggest baseball stages.

Staff columnist Dylan Hernández contributed to this report.

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