LOS ANGELES — The battle to find baseball’s global champions gets under way this week when the pandemic-delayed World Baseball Classic returns after a six-year absence with Shohei Ohtani hoping to inspire Japan to a record third title.
Teams from 20 countries are participating in the fifth edition of the tournament, with the four first round groups hosted at venues in Taiwan, Tokyo, Arizona and Florida before the bulk of the knockout rounds get under way in the United States.
The tournament was last staged in 2017, with the United States finally winning the title for the first time with victory over Puerto Rico at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the tournament in 2021, meaning the United States are only now launching their title defense with a team bristling with stars from Major League Baseball.
The American roster includes some of the biggest names in the MLB, with Los Angeles Angels slugger Mike Trout joining the likes of the Philadelphia Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber and Trea Turner, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Mookie Betts and the Colorado Rockies’ Nolan Arenado.
Team USA manager Mark DeRosa believes the American line-up is conceivably the “greatest USA team ever assembled” and is relishing the fact that the defending champions will head into the tournament as the team everyone wants to beat.
“We’ll be the hunted,” DeRosa acknowledged in a recent interview, adding that he is hoping to build an atmosphere of excitement amongst the US squad as they get the rare opportunity to join forces in an international setting.
“I want there to be a buzz,” DeRosa said. “This is an opportunity to grow, and be great, and to represent your country and get to meet some guys you may never be in a batting practice group with.”
Ohtani leads Japan challenge
The U.S. will face Mexico, Colombia, Canada and Great Britain in Pool C, with all games taking place at Chase Field in Phoenix, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Yet the star-studded U.S. roster is by no means the only one in the tournament with box office appeal.
Japan, who won the inaugural classic in 2006 and successfully defended the title three years later, will be chasing a record third world crown with all eyes on two-way star Ohtani.
Los Angeles Angels ace Ohtani, the 2021 American League Most Valuable Player, leads a Japan team that will play all of its first-round games at the Tokyo Dome, which is hosting Pool B.
Ohtani says playing in the classic for Japan had been a dream ever since watching the tournament as a fan in 2006.
“Just watching the best players in Japan playing together as a team against the best in the world was so exciting,” he said earlier this year. “Now that I’m in that position, I want to show people what I can do.”
Other teams in the group include South Korea, Australia, China and the Czech Republic.
Ohtani, who is expected to command a record-breaking contract when he enters free agency after this season, will be playing in front of Japanese fans for the first time in more than five years.
The 28-year-old was originally due to play in the 2017 World Baseball Classic but was ruled out with an ankle injury.
The Dominican Republic, meanwhile, the 2013 champions, are also looming large as one of the favorites for the title.
The Dominicans’ largely MLB-based squad boasts the likes of San Diego Padres duo Manny Machado and Juan Soto although Toronto Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has withdrawn from the roster. Guerrero pulled out on Saturday citing knee soreness.
The Dominican Republic head a stacked Pool D staged at Miami’s LoanDepot Park which includes a powerful Puerto Rico team, Venezuela, Israel and Nicaragua.
The tournament opens on Wednesday with Pool A games in Taiwan. Pool A includes Taiwan, Netherlands, Cuba, Italy and Panama.
Source: Voice of America