The World Baseball Classic (WBC) final between Japan and the USA delivered on many fronts: athletic performance, drama and a long-awaited victory for Japan’s fans.
In the early hours of Japan local time, the Samurai Japan team defeated the US champions in a thrilling 3-2 victory in Miami.
It’s the third WBC championship for the baseball-mad nation – but only the first since 2009.
In the end, there was trembling between the team captains.
It was the duel that had baseball fans salivating for months: Japanese power player Shohei Ohtani meets US all-star Mike Trout.
The two are among the best players in major league baseball, and they don’t usually clash because they both play for the Los Angeles Angels.
So the final innings showdown was the stuff of fantasies.
“It would have been cheesy if it was a movie, but it was amazing because it was real life,” said CBS sports commentator Mike Axisa.
And in real life, Ohtani won. He pitched to Trout at the batter’s box, threw 100-mile deliveries and knocked out the US batsman on sixth ball.
Japanese fans watching at home erupted in cheers.
In Ohtani’s hometown of Oshu, footage showed young children jumping to their feet after his winning pitch.
People watching at sports bars, in parks, or on their phones were celebrating.
I felt the mood in Tokyo improve around me. It was the only thing that was talked about in the hours after the game.
Japan, a baseball powerhouse, had been waiting for this moment for more than a decade.
“I’m going to work extra early to watch the game,” a colleague told me before the game.
The country had finally achieved victory after 14 years. After winning the first two editions of the tournament in 2006 and 2009, the win in 2023 now marks their third.
And it was all the sweeter because it was a win over the United States – the country that introduced baseball to Japan – and a country whose team was crammed with all-star players.
Japanese media reported that in the pre-game pep talk, Ohtani told teammates not to be intimidated by star power.
“If you look at the great line-up of the players… obviously we have respect,” he told them.
“[But] Forget admiration for the stars today. We came here to do one thing: win.”
Many have commented on Samurai Japan’s team spirit; and how the players – each a star in Japan’s top division – came together in the two-week tournament to a 7-0 unbeaten game.
And yet Ohtani was the standout. He’s a two-way baseball sensation, both a gifted hitter and pitcher. His rare talents have earned him nicknames like “Shotime” and “Baseball Unicorn.”
Already a national hero in Japan, he was hailed as the designated batsman and bowler throughout the tournament.
But now he’s solidified his status as arguably the greatest baseball player in the world right now.
“[Ohtani] was better than any animation or manga. He was amazingly cool,” said one exuberant fan on Twitter.
He was awarded the Most Valuable Player of the Tournament award, and his name rivaled #JapanBaseball and #SamuraiJapan in the flood of celebratory online comments in Japan.
“My dream has come true,” said Ohtani after the game.
“It was such a relief that I was able to finish the game. But it’s sad that this tournament is over,” he told reporters.
A fan at a rowdy sports bar told a local TV station: “I will never forget the moment Ohtani struck. I was so excited – I was partying with the strangers around me.”
Japan’s victory topped all domestic news bulletins on Wednesday, relegating Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to Ukraine to stage two.
It also dominated Thursday’s front pages — with three different newspapers — the Mainichi, Yomiuri, and Asahi — running the headline, “Samurai Reclaims World No. 1.”
The US may have brought baseball to Japan more than 150 years ago – but this win is a reminder of how baseball has become Japan’s national sport, overtaking even football.
It will go down as one of the most memorable days in Japan’s sporting history. And most importantly, it has brought the country together for a much-needed moment of national pride and joy.