The World Baseball Classic is nearing its conclusion. Team USA and Cuba will play on Sunday for a spot in the finals. Japan and Mexico will then square off Monday to determine the other half of Tuesday's championship game. Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama addressed his pitching plans on Sunday, announcing that Roki Sasaki will start against Mexico while declining to reveal if Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani will be available to pitch in the finals.
Sasaki, a 21-year-old phenom, is one of the most exciting pitchers in the world. Last season, he appeared 20 times and compiled a 2.02 ERA and a 7.52 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 129 innings. Sasaki made global waves last April, when he threw a 19-strikeout perfect game, the first in nearly three decades in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league.
"He's very young, if you look at the age, but he's a very talented pitcher," Kuriyama said through an interpreter to ESPN.
Indeed, CBS Sports recently highlighted Sasaki as one of the most intriguing young players in this year's WBC. Here's what we wrote:
[There's] a rich history of NPB pitchers coming over and making their mark. Sasaki certainly has the means to do it himself some day. He has a phenomenal fastball that sits in the upper-90s and features top-notch vertical life. Sasaki's other top offering is a splitter/forkball, though he has a pair of breaking balls, too. Again, he would probably earn No. 2 starter projections, but that's only because he's too young to have had a chance to establish himself as a durable workhorse. (Many evaluators are reluctant to designate someone an "ace" until they've established themselves at a high level over the course of several years.)
While Sasaki's status is known -- he'll complete his tournament, one way or another, on Monday night -- it remains unclear if Ohtani will get another pitching assignment.
Last week, Angels manager Phil Nevin said that the plan was for Ohtani to pitch for Los Angeles on March 24, that way he would be positioned to start on Opening Day. Ohtani, for his part, said that he was not aware of that plan. Now, it appears that Ohtani could make a relief appearance if Japan reaches the finals, possibly setting up a matchup against Team USA and his Angels teammate Mike Trout should the Americans also advance.
"I don't think there's a chance of me starting, but of course I'd like to prepare to pitch in relief," Ohtani said in Japanese to reporters, according to Jorge Castillo and Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. "That will depend on my physical condition. Up to this point, the team has really listened to my selfish requests and there are many things I'm doing that they have tolerated.
Kuriyama, predictably, was noncommittal on the topic, citing both strategic and physical concerns.