NAGO, OKINAWA PREFECTURE – For four years, Shohei Otani burned to help Samurai Japan reclaim the World Baseball Classic title it booted away in San Francisco in 2013, but the fire that empowered the slugging pitcher came at a cost.
The pitcher hurt his right ankle during October’s Japan Series, and soon after declared himself fit to serve as a designated hitter in Samurai Japan’s games against Mexico and the Netherlands in November. But he aggravated the injury during those games at Tokyo Dome, and with his ankle preventing him from pitching or running at full speed, he has been ruled out of the WBC he longed so much to play in.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m not going to play (in the warm-up games),’ ” Otani told Kyodo News on Monday at the Fighters’ spring training base in northern Okinawa. “I won’t say it’s a decision I need to re-evaluate. That’s just the way it was. I got my ankle taped up and it was decided I was able to play.
“From the start, I wasn’t going to pitch. Pitching would have been out of the question, so it was decided I would just be a position player and in that way I was able to play.”
Otani’s power in the series created something of an internet sensation, but Mexico manager Edgar Gonzalez said he was most impressed with Otani’s speed and base running acumen — something which surprised the 22-year-old.
“I was taped and I was able to run in straight lines,” Otani said. “I don’t think it was worthy of surprising anybody. I’m happy to hear that, but I wasn’t able to run 100 percent, not at all.”
He might have benefitted from having had surgery last autumn, but with a chance to play in the WBC, that was likely a last resort for Otani, who was aiming to play up until the minute he was ruled out of manager Hiroki Kokubo’s WBC squad.
“I was being allowed to take part (with Samurai Japan) and my participation had become part of the equation,” Otani said. “Manager Kokubo was counting on me. Over and over he called me to play in warm-up games and kept sending me the message that he wanted me to show what I could really do in the tournament.”
“Regardless of my anxiety about whether or not my ankle would be fit, I just couldn’t give up on that at an early stage. It was no easy thing to do, but with the ankle continuing to not be fit, the team said ‘it would do more harm than good’ and I was out.”
When he first injured the ankle, Otani was on tap to pitch Game 6 of the Japan Series, but he was pushed back a day and the Fighters clinched the title before he could face Hiroki Kuroda, who would have been pitching the final game of his career.
“When all was said and done, I didn’t start Game 7,” Otani said. “Personally, I wanted to pitch against Kuroda-san. But given the condition of my ankle it wouldn’t have been my best performance, so I think it was a good thing I didn’t.”
On Monday, Otani batted for the first time this spring in spikes and reported no pain, but there’s no telling when he’ll be back or be able to find a new dream to replace playing for Japan in March.
“With that gone all of a sudden, means not a lack of a goal, but a need for something to aspire to,” he said. “What should I be aspiring toward? I don’t really know. Of course there’s the season, but that comes with a different problem.
“It’s not a matter of being ready by a certain date, but of my ankle being fit. My focus now is on progressing to the next level of tasks in my rehab. Normally, one should expect to have a rough idea of when a return to the mound and a return to the rotation is possible. But to be honest, until my ankle is fit, there is no sense of a timetable.”