‘Once-in-a-lifetime’ Ohtani has World Baseball semis in his sights

TOKYO (AFP): Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani has been having a ball at the World Baseball Classic and is determined not to let Italy wipe the smile off his face in Thursday’s quarter-final.

Japan won all four of their first-round games in Tokyo and Ohtani appears to be relishing playing in his home country for the first time in five years. The Los Angeles Angels ace can be seen during games laughing and joking with team-mates and teased the Tokyo Dome crowd that their cheers were not loud enough after he hit a home run against Australia.

Japan can reach the semi-finals if they beat Italy in Tokyo but any mistake will see their bid for a record third title come to an abrupt halt. Ohtani admitted that there will be pressure on him as Japan’s starting pitcher but he urged his team-mates to “go into the game with the same feeling that we always have”.

“It’s simple — if you win you enjoy it, and if you lose it’s frustrating,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “We’ve won our four games so far so I’ve enjoyed them all.” Ohtani is one of baseball’s biggest names and his presence in Japan’s team has pushed the country’s media coverage of the tournament into the stratosphere.

Other players have also come in for huge attention, including American-born Lars Nootbaar, who has never played for a Japanese club but has become massively popular with fans. Ohtani said the buoyant atmosphere in the team was down to “a good balance”. “There are senior players who are older than me and they have a serious attitude — there are a lot of good characters around,” he said. “You don’t need to do anything special to create a good atmosphere.”

‘Once-in-a-lifetime player’

Ohtani has earned comparisons with the legendary Babe Ruth for playing as both a pitcher and a hitter — something almost unheard of in baseball. He has enjoyed huge success since moving to Major League Baseball and was named American League Most Valuable Player in 2021.

He played as the starting pitcher in Japan’s World Baseball Classic opening win over China and has also batted in every game so far. Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said Ohtani will likely continue to play his unique two-way game against the Italians. “That’s his style,” said Kuriyama.

“Of course we will have to have a final check on him tomorrow but he will play in the way Shohei Ohtani is known for.”

Italy made it to the quarter-finals after a chaotic end to Pool A, which was played in the Taiwanese city of Taichung. All five teams finished with identical records of two wins and two defeats, but Cuba qualified as group winners and Italy as runners-up thanks to a complicated tie-breaker calculation.

Italy manager Mike Piazza is a famous face in Japan, having played with legendary pitcher Hideo Nomo in MLB in the 1990s. He called Ohtani a “once-in-a-lifetime player” who can still be beaten. “Like any player, if you make good pitches on him and you are able to get the right pitches as a hitter and be disciplined, you have a chance,” he said.