Following the success of Team Japan at the World Baseball Classic, manager Hideki Kuriyama has been making multiple TV appearances in recent weeks, one of them including the documentary sports show GET SPORTS. In the interview, Kuriyama revealed behind-the-scenes stories of Team Japan and their biggest star, Shohei Ohtani.
Ohtani’s tournament MVP campaign showed Kuriyama and baseball fans around the world a new side of Ohtani.
The Origin of Kuriyama and Ohtani’s Relationship
Ohtani and Kuriyama’s relationship dates back to before Ohtani entered the pros in Japan. “Since the first time I ever saw him in high school, I thought it was out of the question to have him choose between pitching or hitting,” said Kuriyama, in a 2021 interview.
At the time, Ohtani faced pressure to choose to be a pitcher or a field player and also wanted to go to the big leagues straight out of high school.
Kuriyama, then manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters, was at the heart of negotiations to convince Ohtani to sign with the team after drafting him in 2012. Kuriyama and the Fighters made the unprecedented pitch to Ohtani to provide him with the resources and opportunities to make the two-way play work.
They were a successful pairing, with Ohtani earning individual accolades and breaking barriers in two-way play and the Fighters winning the Pacific League pennant and the Japan Series in 2016.
The Quarterfinal vs. Italy
Japan cruised to a 9-3 win against Italy in the WBC Quarterfinal, buoyed by Ohtani’s solid start on the mound. The game against Italy was filled with moments of surprise for Kuriyama.
The first came in the 3rd inning, where with one out and a runner at first, Ohtani laid down a bunt and got on base. The bunt sparked the scuffling Japan offense and led to a 4-run inning.
The unexpected move stunned the sold-out Tokyo Dome crowd and Kuriyama, who did not signal for Ohtani to bunt.
“Well, it was typical of Shohei to do something so unexpected like that. But my honest reaction was what the hell was that bunt?” Kuriyama jokingly said. “It was terrible! He couldn’t have laid down a better bunt?”
On the pitching side, Ohtani came out in the middle of the 5th inning after giving up a 2-run double. Kuriyama is known for not going to the mound when making a pitching change, but this game was different. Pitching Coach Masato Yoshii urged Kuriyama to go up on the mound for the change.
“It was my first time going up to the mound to take him [Ohtani] off,” Kuriyama said.
What truly shocked Kuriyama was that Ohtani apologized as he walked off the mound. “It was a moment of honesty from him. Those words hit heavy. It was the first time I ever heard an apology from him during a game . . . He’s always been the type to focus on what’s next and focus on what he can do to solve the issue before making an apology.’”
The Semifinal vs. Mexico
The WBC semifinal was arguably the most dramatic game of the tournament, with Japan coming back to win in the ninth inning 6-5 on a 2-run walk-off double from Munetaka Murakami.
Ohtani ignited the comeback down 5-4 in the ninth with a lead-off double. His helmet came flying off as he ran to second, and once he reached base he fiercely urged his team to follow up. Despite his many years of managing Ohtani, it was a side of Ohtani that Kuriyama had never seen before.
“ If you watch it over, you can see that he’s choked up on the bat ever so slightly. In over a decade of knowing him and managing him, I’ve never seen Shohei play with so much emotion. . . Then it clicked for me. THIS is what he wanted to do. To do everything in his power to try to win in a do-or-die situation.”
Kuriyama also shared what led up to the moment.
“I heard about it after the fact, but apparently, he told the bench, ’I’m going to go get a hit and get on base.’”
This wasn’t the first time Ohtani called his shot. Back in 2016, Kuriyama started Ohtani as the lead-off hitter and the starting pitcher for the first time. It was the first time in 70 years that a pitcher hit lead-off in the NPB. Ohtani responded by hitting a leadoff homer.
“He told us [the bench] that he was going to go and hit a home run and opened the game with a lead-off home run like it was no big deal,” Kuriyama said.
The Final vs. Team USA
The WBC championship game was another instant classic. Ohtani took the mound in the ninth to close out the game for Team Japan, who held a 3-2 lead over Team USA.
After walking Jeff McNeil, Ohtani got Mookie Betts to ground out into a double play. With two outs in the ninth inning of a one-run game, baseball fans got their dream matchup: Shohei Ohtani vs. Mike Trout. Ohtani struck out Trout on a nasty sweeper to win the game and delivered a third WBC title to his country.
It wasn’t always a guarantee that Ohtani was going to pitch in the Final because of the congested tournament schedule, but the plan to close the game with Yu Darvish and Ohtani was always in the back of Kuriyama’s mind.
“I always knew that we were going to have to face Team USA, in America, for us to win the championship. I wanted to use pitchers who have experience pitching in the US. Based on the [WBC] schedule, starting pitchers can only go once or twice. But I kept thinking of ways to let Shohei and Darvish pitch three times, and the only way to do that is starting twice in the early going and pitching in the final,” Kuriyama said.
Ohtani had not closed a game since 2016, in the clinching game of the Japan Series with the Nippon Ham Fighters.
“Shohei is the type of player that the more homework you give him and the more you challenge him, his talent is maximized. After all this time together, there’s no doubt about that,” Kuriyama said.
He’s a great player but this feels like a Paul Bunyan story. The series was amazing without the hyperbole.
The translation of Kuriyama’s comments by Dai are very well done. If you read the linked interview, you will see how clumsy a straight google translation of Japanese can be. As for hyperbole, it’s hard to exaggerate a called shot if it’s true. Paul Bunyan is only a fictional character. Shohei is a real person doing legendary things almost every day.
It’s really no different than Babe Ruth’s famous called shot.