By IAN WILSON
Long before Shohei Ohtani started doing Babe Ruth-like things or earning American League (AL) Rookie of the Year honours, he was just another young player trying to make a name for himself in the baseball world.
And while that name would end up being “Sho-Time” when he joined the Los Angeles Angels, members of the under-18 Canadian team at the 2012 Baseball World Championship in South Korea didn’t know what to call him – they just knew that he was good.
As an 18-year-old, Ohtani was still growing and developing. If he hadn’t quite reached his current height of 6-foot-3, he was close to it. The Japanese outfielder hit the ball hard and when he took to the mound he threw it even harder.
“I had no idea who he was,” said Logan Seifrit, a Vauxhall Baseball Academy graduate who was pitching for Canada at the time.
“I didn’t really look into the dude that much. I wasn’t the type of guy to really give a crap about another player. Some I’d pitch different to, but all got my best stuff that I could muster.”
On Aug. 31st of that year, the Canadian Junior National Team (JNT) opened their tournament against Ohtani and his Japanese teammates at Mokdong Baseball Stadium in Seoul in front of a crowd of only 125 onlookers.
Calgarian Chris Reitsma – who played for the Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves and Seattle Mariners between 2001 and 2007 – was the pitching coach for the JNT at the time. He knew more about Ohtani than Seifrit did, but had no idea what to expect out of the young man from Iwate, Japan.
JAPAN’S SECOND BEST PITCHER
“Believe it or not, he was the second best pitcher on his team. Another kid by the last name of Fujinami was maybe not quite as physical but was a better pitcher at that time,” Reitsma said in reference to Shintaro Fujinami, who has since gone on to star for the Hanshin Tigers of the Japan Central League.
Despite Fujinami’s superior reputation at the time, Reitsma saw enough out of Ohtani to have concerns for the Canadian side heading into the game.
“Ohtani was extremely tall … long and lean, and had lots of arm whip and watching him warm up I thought, ‘OK, we got our work cut out for us,'” Reitsma told Alberta Dugout Stories.
Japan pounced early, scoring two runs in the top of the first inning off of Whitby, Ontario’s Ryan Kellogg. One of those runs came off of an Ohtani sacrifice fly to centre field.
When the Canadians stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the first, they had a chance to respond and get a look at what the future Major League Baseball (MLB) sensation could do on the mound.
The radar gun – which displayed speeds in kilometres per hour (km/h), rather than the more familiar miles per hour (mph) – showed an arm that was whipping the ball towards home plate in excess of 150 km/h (or 95 mph).
But what Ohtani displayed in force, he lacked in finesse.
“He didn’t have any command, he was a thrower,” said Reitsma during a break at a recent Sidearm Nation pitching camp at the Coyote Den in Calgary.
After walking the first batter he faced on four pitches, Ohtani induced a ground out, a pop fly and he registered his first strikeout of the game to end the first inning. He looked better in his second inning of work, striking out the side.
But Canada got to Ohtani in the third inning, when a walk, a wild pitch and a base hit brought home outfielder Jacob Robson. They came back for more in the fourth inning. After Ohtani opened the frame by plunking a batter and walking another, a pair of singles scored two runners and gave Canada a 3-2 lead.
With that, Ohtani was off the mound, but not out of the game. He took over in left field with a final pitching line of 3.1 innings pitched, three hits, three earned runs, four bases on balls and four strikeouts.
The lefty batter continued to have an impact at the plate as the game progressed.
“He hit rockets all over the field,” said Reitsma. “He was more impressive as a hitter.”
After lining into a double play in the third inning and grounding out in the sixth inning, Ohtani stepped to the plate in the seventh inning with two outs. Japan had just regained the lead when Ohtani slapped a single to left field to make it 5-3.
By the ninth inning, Canada had seen enough of the future star, so they intentionally walked Ohtani, who wore No. 1 on the back of his jersey during that tournament. He finished up his day at the plate going 1-for-3 with one hit, one walk and two runs batted in.
But it was Canada that got the last laugh after third baseman Jesse Hodges, a product of Victoria, B.C., tied the game with a two-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
GOING FOR THE WIN
That set up a crazy finish and gave Seifrit the opportunity of a lifetime when he entered the game in the 10th inning.
Extra-innings rules during the tournament had runners placed at first base and second base with no outs to start each half inning.
“I remember being in the bullpen and I was feeling a lot of emotions, from anger to fear, but when I came through the gate into the outfield I had a few jelly-legged steps and then I got my shit together and got a jog on,” said Seifrit, who now works as an electrician and a hunting guide.
“I was in shallow left when Chris (Reitsma) yelled at me about the runner rule. I had no idea. My first thought was just (expletive deleted), but then when I got to the mound I took a few deep breaths and just figured it is what it is and I’ve got a job to do. Fortunately, it worked out in my favour.”
Seifrit, a Seattle Mariner pick in the 33rd round of the 2012 amateur entry draft, got an immediate break when the runner on second base was caught stealing.
“I’m normally the kind of pitcher who is either getting ground balls and pop ups or getting ropes off the wall or in the gaps. I really didn’t have an in between,” the Spruce Grove product told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“But the runner on second helped out a lot. We got him out first from what I remember and then I went to work on the guy at the plate with a runner on first.”
Two ground outs later and Seifrit was back in Canada’s dugout getting high fives.
In the bottom of the 10th, the Canadians sacrificed their runners over to second and third. An intentional walk loaded the bases and Canada ultimately won the game by a 6-5 score when Hodges scrambled home on a wild pitch.
Seifrit’s high-stress inning of work made him the pitcher of record and secured the win for him over Ohtani and Japan.
“We were all pretty fired up. I was never one to look at stats, so I honestly didn’t remember I got the win,” said the 24-year-old.
“I was just excited that we won and had a chance to keep going and represent Canada.”
After topping the Japanese, the Canadian squad had a strong showing at the tournament, making it all the way to the finals. A 6-2 loss to the U.S. resulted in a silver-medal finish for the Canucks.
And, now that Ohtani has become the first player since Babe Ruth to pitch at least 50 innings and hit over 15 home runs in a season, how does Seifrit look back at the time he and his teammates defeated the former Nippon Fighters superstar?
“I was in the bullpen for him pitching, so I couldn’t really see movement or anything like that too well. He for sure has a lively arm. Whatever the guy’s doing obviously worked,” said Seifrit, who admits that he hasn’t kept up with MLB much following his release from the Mariners in 2014.
Reitsma, meanwhile, said Ohtani had all the ingredients of a star player back in 2012 but he couldn’t have predicted the two-way sensation’s breakout campaign with the Angels in 2018.
“I knew he’d be special if he could figure it out and obviously he did. He’s a great talent,” said the 40-year-old Reitsma, now a scout with the Baltimore Orioles.
“It’s interesting that he’s a starting pitcher, too. People say that he can pitch and hit but what kind of pitcher is he? He’s a starting pitcher, which takes that much more preparation and is a physical grind. It’ll be interesting to see where he ends up. Hopefully he gets through this arm injury and moves on, but he’s a pretty special talent.”
Ohtani proved this year to be an AL Rookie of the Year talent. We’ll see what other awards he picks up in the future, but until he’s healthy again we can always look back at the time that Canada got the better of him and a kid from Spruce Grove, Alberta picked up the win against a player who looked almost unbeatable this year.