Shohei Ohtani told Japanese media Sunday that he would only be available 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 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.”
Ohtani surrendered two runs on four hits and threw 71 pitches across 4 ⅔ 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’s ever 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.
The Angels’ two-way superstar has been one of the best pitchers and hitters in the tournament. At the plate, he’s 7 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 8 ⅔ innings over two starts.
Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama declined to say whether Ohtani would start.
“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.”
Japan needs to defeat Mexico in the semifinals Monday for Ohtani’s pitching availability to matter. Roki Sasaki, perhaps the best pitcher in the world not in the major leagues, will start for the Japanese opposite the Angels’ Patrick Sandoval.
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.
“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.
“I think I will play in Japan,” Sasaki said through an interpreter. “And then I think something will become clear when I’m going to shift over.”
Ohtani, 28, was once also a phenom in Japan. He’s proven 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.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.