Major league superstar Shohei Ohtani was given a hero’s welcome as he led Japan to an 8-1 win over China in their World Baseball Classic opener in Tokyo on Thursday.
Ohtani was playing in the Japanese capital for the first time since joining the Los Angeles Angels five years ago and he did not disappoint an adoring crowd of over 40,000.
Making his first pitching start of the year, the 28-year-old struck out five Chinese batters and gave up only one hit before leaving the mound after four innings.
He also drove in two runs with a huge double in the fourth inning to edge Japan towards a win that was harder work than the final score suggested.
Ohtani has earned comparisons with the legendary Babe Ruth for playing as both a pitcher and a hitter — something almost unheard of in baseball.
He is playing in the World Baseball Classic for the first time after missing the 2017 tournament due to an injury.
He was given a deafening round of applause when he took to the mound and struck out the first batter he faced.
Excitement began building hours before the game began, with fans queuing up to buy replica jerseys emblazoned with the Japanese players’ names.
Ami Miyashita, a 25-year-old office worker, told AFP that Ohtani was her favourite.
“He’s really popular — everyone looks up to him,” she said.
“He’s a great player who is making history. He’s got a great personality and he’s cute.”
Ao Kazusa, a 27-year-old office worker wearing a red Los Angeles Angels jersey, said he was not worried about Ohtani being rusty in the tournament opener.
“I’m hoping he hits a home run,” he said.
Japan are looking to win the World Baseball Classic for a record third time and are expected to compete with defending champions the United States and the Dominican Republic for the title.
They have picked a team loaded with talent from the domestic league and sprinkled with MLB stars like Ohtani and Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres.
They will also face South Korea, Australia and the Czech Republic in Pool B, with all games being played in Tokyo.
In the day’s earlier game, Australia stunned the Koreans 8-7 to put themselves into strong contention for a place in the quarter-finals.
In Pool A, taking place in Taiwan, the Netherlands beat Panama 3-1.