The battle to find baseball’s global champion begins this week when the pandemic-delayed World Baseball Classic kicks off with Shohei Ohtani hoping to propel Japan to a record third title after a six-year absence.
Teams from 20 countries are participating in the fifth edition of the tournament, with the first four groups being hosted at venues in Taiwan, Tokyo, Arizona and Florida, before the knockout rounds begin in the United States.
The tournament was last staged in 2017, with the United States winning the title for the first time with a victory over Puerto Rico at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the tournament to 2021, meaning the United States is only now beginning its title defense with a squad full of stars from Major League Baseball.
The American roster includes some of the biggest names in MLB, with Los Angeles Angels slugger Mike Trout joining the likes of the Philadelphia Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber and Trey Turner, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Mookie Betts and the Colorado Rockies’ Nolan Arenado.
Team USA manager Mark DeRosa believes that the American line-up is hypothetically “the greatest USA team ever” and is lamenting the fact that the defending champions will participate in the tournament because everyone wants to beat the team. wants to
“We will be hunted,” DeRosa admitted in a recent interview, adding that he is looking forward to creating an atmosphere of excitement among the American squad as they get the rare opportunity to join forces in an international setting.
“I want there to be a discussion,” DeRosa said.
“It’s an opportunity to grow, and be great, and represent your country, and meet some people you might never get to be in a batting practice group.”
– Ohtani leads Japan’s challenge –
The US will face Mexico, Colombia, Canada and Great Britain in Pool C, with all games taking place at Chase Field in Phoenix, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Yet the star-studded US roster isn’t 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 chase a record third world crown with all eyes on two-way star Otani.
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 has been a dream since watching the tournament as a fan in 2006.
“It was very exciting to see the best players in Japan play together as a team against the best players in the world,” 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 play 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 pulled out due to an ankle injury.
Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic, the 2013 champions, are also emerging as one of the title favourites.
The Dominican’s largely MLB-based squad features the likes of San Diego Padres duo Manny Machado and Juan Soto, though Toronto Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been left off the roster. Guerrero withdrew on Saturday, citing sore knees.
The Dominican Republic heads Pool D, staged at Miami’s Londepot Park, which includes a potent Puerto Rico team, Venezuela, Israel and Nicaragua.
The tournament begins on Wednesday with Pool A games in Taiwan. Pool A consists of Taiwan, Netherlands, Cuba, Italy and Panama.