MLB labor deal opens door for Shohei Ohtani to play in 2023 World Baseball Classic

After an injury kept him out of the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Los Angeles Angels two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani now appears to be on track to participate a year from now when the tournament resumes after a six-year hiatus.

The 2023 edition, originally scheduled for March 2021 but pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic after its 2020 qualifying rounds were postponed, was in doubt until MLB agreed with its union on a new labor deal and the owners ended their lockout.

Ohtani had been on track to compete in the 2017 WBC as the reigning MVP of the Pacific League, but injured his ankle in the 2016 Japan Series and aggravated it in Japan’s international friendlies that November.

Although Ohtani was not fit to pitch — his bat was sorely missed when Japan lost 2-1 in the semifinals against the United States, the eventual tournament champion. In 2023, however, WBC fans have the mouth-watering possibility of seeing him star on the mound as well.

The thought of having Ohtani play for Samurai Japan likely influenced the choice of Hideki Kuriyama as national team manager. Kuriyama was chosen to replace Atsunori Inaba in December.

During his tenure as Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager, Kuriyama helped Ohtani realize his dream of contributing with both ball and bat.

After winning the first two WBCs in 2006 and 2009, Japan overhauled its organization after losing to Puerto Rico in the semifinals in 2013 under a stopgap coaching staff. Since then, Japan’s managers and staff have been chosen well in advance and given years to plan.

Inaba left after piloting Japan to the Tokyo Olympic gold medal, giving Kuriyama barely more than a year to prepare for 2023. After fielding a team with no active MLB players in 2017, Japan’s strongest team ever could possibly be at Kuriyama’s disposal.

In addition to Ohtani, Kuriyama may well have the San Diego Padres’ Yu Darvish, Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ Masahiro Tanaka, and current Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks ace Kodai Senga in his rotation.

While defense is Japan’s calling card, Kuriyama will get to choose some experienced power hitters: Ohtani, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and slugging outfielder Seiya Suzuki.

With the quality of pitching in Japan gradually edging closer to what hitters see from MLB hurlers, Japan’s domestic big boppers without MLB experience might struggle less in the final round, where Japan has faltered the last two times.

The Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Munetaka Murakami and Tetsuto Yamada, the Yomiuri Giants’ Kazuma Okamoto, the Hawks’ Yuki Yanagita and Orix’s Masataka Yoshida are all candidates to give Samurai Japan that extra pop it has often lacked in the final round.

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