Japanese phenomenon Roki Sasaki starts in WBC semifinals against Mexico; Shohei Ohtani could serve relieved in the title game

The World Baseball Classic is nearing its end. Team USA and Cuba will play for a spot in the finals on Sunday. Japan and Mexico will then face off on Monday to determine the other half of Tuesday’s league game. Japan coach Hideki Kuriyama spoke about his pitching plans on Sunday, announcing Roki Sasaki will play Mexico but declined to reveal if Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani will be available for the final.

Sasaki, a 21-year-old phenomenon, is one of the most exciting pitchers in the world. Last season, he made 20 appearances and had 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 perfect game with 19 strikeouts, the first in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League in almost three decades.

“He’s very young if you look at his age, but he’s a very talented pitcher,” Kuriyama told ESPN through an interpreter.

In fact, CBS Sports recently singled out Sasaki as one of the most intriguing young players at this year’s WBC. Here’s what we wrote:

[There’s] a rich history of NPB pitchers coming across and making their mark. Sasaki certainly has the means to do it himself one day. He has phenomenal fastball that sits in the upper 90s and offers top-notch vertical life. Sasaki’s other top offering is a splitter/forkball, although he also has a pair of breaking balls. Again, he’d likely earn starter tabs #2, but that’s only because he’s too young to establish himself as a permanent workhorse. (Many reviewers hesitate to call 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 will end his tournament one way or another on Monday night – it remains unclear whether Ohtani will receive another pitching contract.

Last week Angels manager Phil Nevin said Ohtani was scheduled to compete for Los Angeles on March 24 so he could start on opening day. For his part, Ohtani said he was not aware of this plan. Now it seems that Ohtani could have a relieved showing if Japan reach the finals, potentially setting up a matchup against Team USA and Angels teammate Mike Trout should the Americans also advance.

“I don’t think I can start, but of course I’d like to prepare myself to appear relieved,” Ohtani told reporters in Japanese, according to Jorge Castillo and Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. “It depends on my physical condition. Up to this point the team have really listened to my selfish desires and there are many things I do that they have tolerated.

As expected, Kuriyama was noncommittal on the subject, citing both strategic and physical concerns.

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