YOKOHAMA, Japan – Earlier in the week, Team Japan’s manager, Atsunori Inaba, called an old teammate of his. American and Japanese fans alike will have heard of him: Shohei Ohtani.
In the final two years of his playing career, Inaba had overlapped with a young Ohtani on the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, several years before the two-way star signed with the Angels to play in the best baseball league on the planet. To this day, they keep in touch, with Inaba following Ohtani’s career with fascination, just like everyone else who loves the game.
Ohtani spent the Olympics playing for the Angels back in the States, along with all the other Major Leaguer players. Which is sort of why Inaba reached out.
“I asked Ohtani about how he handles American pitchers,” he said via a translator.
It’s not clear if Ohtani produced a scouting report. But given his dual allegiances, it’s seems like Team USA should have asked him how to handle Japanese pitching.
Japan players celebrate as Tetsuto Yamada scores a run in the eighth inning against the United States during the gold medal game on Aug. 7. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
The country that brought baseball back to the Olympics was rewarded with their first-ever gold medal. It was not the first, but was possibly the last time that lack of even local fans at the 2020-turned-2021 Games made the whole operation feel bittersweet.
Japan defeated a conspicuously not star-studded U.S. team 2-0 on the penultimate night of the Tokyo Games.
That sends the baseball capital of the world into the sport’s uncertain Olympic future with a silver medal, to go with a gold from 2000 and a couple of bronzes. (They also won another gold and silver when baseball was a “demonstration sport.”) The literature distributed by USA baseball touted their appearance in a medal game at all of the sport’s now six Olympics. That part should have gone without saying; that they have come up short of gold so often is far more illustrative of America’s Olympic baseball program.
The game, which started at 6 a.m. ET, might not be considered the premier Olympic event back in the States, but on Saturday in Yokohama, the Japanese made their affection for the sport felt. An hour before first pitch, a nearby bar played highlights from the first matchup — when Japan handed the U.S. their only loss of the tournament coming into the gold medal game. Throughout the tournament, locals had lined up to take pictures of the YOKOHAMA STADIUM signage peeking out over the Olympic infrastructure that had been erected around it. After the games, they would wait to wave at the bus carrying the Japanese team, made up of members of the Nippon Professional Baseball that took a month-long hiatus to allow the best players to participate.
The break allowed Nick Martinez, who has played in the NPB since 2018 after four middling years with the Rangers, to start the medal match for Team USA. He gave his hometown squad a chance to take control, striking out seven in five innings of one-run ball. But in the end, that solo shot surrendered in the third to 21-year-old Munetaka Murakami was all Samurai Japan needed.
At least 500 credentialed fans (staff, volunteers, even some other athletes) packed the sections behind home plate. When Martinez loaded the bases in the bottom of the fourth, they readied their phone cameras for what was to come. When he worked out of the jam and went on to strike out the side in the fifth, they groaned — a fraction of the energy that could have filled the stadium in a different year.
In the end, a cadre of Japanese pitchers led by Masato Morishita shut out the American lineup. And after the final out in the ninth, the team swarmed the field, saluted the fans, shook hands with Team USA and then gathered on the mound where they jubilantly hoisted their manager in the air. Something he’d done worked.
Team USA’s Tyler Austin reacts on the second base after the eighth during the gold medal game between the U.S. and Japan on Aug. 7. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
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