Baseball: Ohtani keys Japan's WBC run with physicality and mindset

Shohei Ohtani's bunt single has been a hot topic among baseball fans since it ignited a four-run third inning that keyed Japan's 9-3 World Baseball Classic quarterfinal win over Italy on Thursday.

Most fans expect to see the two-way superstar swing for the fences every time he steps to the plate. But with the game scoreless, one out and a runner on first in the bottom of the third, Ohtani caught fans and Team Italy by surprise with the bunt to set the stage for cleanup hitter Masataka Yoshida.

"It was a choice that offered a big payoff," Ohtani said. "It wasn't about being proud."

Yoshida, a new Boston Red Sox outfielder, came through with a run-scoring groundout. He also added a solo home run in the seventh, raising his RBI total to 10 for the tournament.

The nation has been watching Samurai Japan's every move since Day 1 of its training camp in Miyazaki on Feb. 17.

The hype rose to a new level when Ohtani joined the team two weeks later in Nagoya after spending the early part of spring training with the Los Angeles Angels.

An easing of coronavirus restrictions in Japan has allowed fans to gather to follow the team on TV and at stadiums.

"Ohtani's bunt was unexpected, and a nice one," local customer Yusuke Kakeno said Thursday night at a packed Nagoya sports bar, accommodating up to 70 people.

As he helped book Japan's ticket to the semifinals in Miami, Ohtani also looked in mid-season form on the mound, touching as high as 102 miles per hour with his fastball and striking out five in 4-2/3 innings of work.

Ohtani's fighting spirit resonated with the capacity crowd at Tokyo Dome, with the 2021 American League MVP grunting while delivering nearly every pitch. He left the mound with a 4-2 lead but remained in the game as the designated hitter, as he has done for the Angels.

"There was a special feeling in my heart," Ohtani said of his team's last game in front of the home crowd. "I wanted to go as deep as possible. I chose pitches that could not lead to the worst case."

Ohtani and his teammates left Japan in the early hours of Friday for Miami. Their semifinal is scheduled for Monday against the winner of the quarterfinal between Mexico and Puerto Rico.

"We'll try to win with a team effort," Ohtani said. "No matter how, a win by one run in the end will do it."

© Kyodo News