The WBC title game produced an ending straight out of an Avengers movie.
If the World Baseball Classic had a screenplay, it would have been a bad one. Seriously, how much do you want us to suspend our disbelief? EVERY game feels like Game 7 of the World Series? The championship pits the two greatest players of this generation, who are MLB teammates, on opposite sides? The 9th inning of said championship comes down to a mano-a-mano clash of these two titans with the fate of the game hanging in the balance? Come on, guy.
Well it happened in real life. Somehow. You can't blame exaggeration or recency bias when people say the 2023 World Baseball Classic was the most exhilarating stretch of baseball they've ever seen. They're telling the truth. Nearly every game was close, decided by one big hit or defensive play in the late innings. The patriotic fire of each country was blindingly bright, both on the field and in the stands.
It was intoxicating. And it ended with what is, in my opinion, the most epic pitcher-batter matchup in the history of baseball. Shohei Ohtani vs. Mike Trout. The two best players on Earth. Two outs. 9th inning. One-run game. The championship on the line. Power vs. power.
Pitch 1: 88 MPH slider. Low. Ball 1. Count is 1-0.
Trout was taking all the way here. He went through his usual pre-pitch routine, giving Shohei a subtle nod before he stepped into the box. "Let's do this." His bat rested on his shoulder as soon as Ohtani delivered the pitch, however. The first pitch can tell the hitter a lot about how the opposition wants to attack him, and vice versa. But taking all the way gives Ohtani and catcher Yuhei Nakamura no information and Trout all the information. Now Trout has seen Ohtani's slider, is ahead of the count after laying off a good pitch, and knows to expect it again later in the at bat. Good plan.
Pitch 2: 100 MPH fastball. Swinging strike. Strike 1. Count is 1-1.
This is Trout's PITCH. He's made a living throughout his career on turning pitcher's pitches into hitter's pitches. Namely, balls low in the zone. This pitch split the plate at the bottom of the zone, but Trout couldn't catch up to the gas. When you throw 100 MPH, no spot in the strike zone is a bad one. Now Ohtani knows that Trout might not be ready for the heat, if he goes back to it. And Trout knows he'll probably have to cheat a little to catch up, which will make him more susceptible to off-speed pitches.
Pitch 3: 100 MPH fastball. Outside. Ball 2. Count is 2-1.
Right back to the smoke. If you can't hit the fastball, you're getting fastballs. Ohtani fires another triple-digit offering at his 3X MVP teammate, but misses off the outer edge. Trout has one of the best eyes in baseball and barely flinched. He now holds the advantage and will be locked in on the 2-1 pitch.
Pitch 4: 100 MPH fastball. Swinging strike. Strike 2. Count is 2-2.
This is EVERYONE'S pitch. Fastball. Middle-middle. Can't get any better than that. Here it is for you, big man, let's see what you can do with it. Turns out, not much if you're Mike Trout. This was the most obvious pitch selection of the entire at bat, and Trout's best chance to do damage. Ohtani was behind and needed to throw a strike. Trout had previously swung through a fastball in a spot where he normally hits it 450 feet. All signs pointed towards a fastball in the zone, and that's exactly what happened. Trout just couldn't get to it, swinging underneath it with his mightiest swing of the at bat.
Pitch 5: 102 MPH fastball. Low and away. Ball 3. Count is full.
Ohtani reared back for even more cheese on this one. He overthrew and yanked it, though, zipping it past Nakamura to the backstop. Trout again barely flinched. Would he have finally caught up to Ohtani's fastball had it been in the zone? We'll never know.
Pitch 6: 87 MPH slider. Swinging strike. Strike 3. Game over.
John Smoltz touched upon this concept during the game; it's easier to slow down than speed up. When you're facing a guy who throws as hard as Shohei Ohtani does, especially when you have two strikes, it's smart to prepare for the fastball and trust you'll be able to adjust to his off-speed stuff. If you're trying to time up a slider or splitter, you won't be able to get a piece of a 100+ MPH fastball. This is likely the approach Trout had heading into the pay-off pitch of the World Baseball Classic.
To his credit, it seemed like he was on it. Unfortunately, Ohtani's slider has much more horizontal than vertical break, causing Trout to swing underneath the pitch for the third time in the at bat. Who knows if he gets rung up if he takes it? Definitely too close to let go by in that situation. From Ohtani's perspective, it's an enormous gamble to show Mike Trout the same pitch five times in a row. It doesn't matter how fast it is, you have to assume Mike Trout will adjust after seeing it so much. He was risking putting the tying run on first base with a walk, but it was clear Ohtani and Nakamura thought it was the perfect time to change the tempo on Trout.
It worked, and thus concluded the most epic pitcher-hitter matchup in the history of baseball.
Is it 2026 yet?
Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani will forever be linked as two of the greatest players and teammate duos of all time, if not the greatest. But for one night and one night only, we got a dream matchup the likes of which we might never see again. Such is the magic of the World Baseball Classic, which could not have been a more spellbinding display of skill, athleticism, and passion. PG Score of 11/10.
No, it doesn't count towards any sort of MLB metric. No shit, smooth brain. That doesn't make it an invaluable tournament, as shown by the millions of fans from around the world who filed into the stadiums over the course of the tournament. The WBC sold more tickets over a two-week span than some MLB franchises sold all of last season. 93.6% of TVs in Japan were tuned in to their semifinal walk off win over Mexico. 97.4% of their TVs were tuned in to the title game against the U.S. There were prominent Major Leaguers from different countries who, without hesitation, said they'd rather win the WBC than the World Series. Spare me with the "durrr it's meaningless baseball it's not worth the risk Edwin Diaz got hurt durrr." It does have meaning; the players and fans have assigned meaning to it. Much like the FIFA World Cup, on a smaller, but rapidly growing, scale.
The 2023 World Baseball Classic was baseball at its finest, capped off by a once-in-a-lifetime matchup between two of the best players to ever set foot on God's green Earth.