There is nothing quite like the World Series. After so many years of struggle and hard work, teams filled with players from all over the world come together to compete for the sport's biggest prize. The World Baseball Classic brings together many of the same faces, but in a different style. Instead of playing for a shiny trophy, a giant ring and the pride of a city as well as a franchise, the players play for their country. While the vibe might be different, the pride reverberates in a more significant manner. Today, two pitchers will take the mound, hailing from different sides of the globe, zipping a tiny white ball into a glove 60.6 feet away in hopes of global triumph.
Merrill Kelly was born on October 14, 1988 in Houston, Texas. He moved to Scottsdale, Arizona when he was young and after starring at Desert Mountain High School he was drafted in the 37th round of the 2007 MLB Draft by the Baltimore Orioles. Seeing his low draft number, Kelly declined to sign his rookie contract and enrolled in Yavapai College where he improved his draft stock to the 22nd round two years later. But despite his improved odds of making the Cleveland Indians' roster, he decided to stay in college a little bit longer, to give himself a little more seasoning before facing the grind of being a professional athlete.
He spent one year at Arizona State and the hard work paid off that Summer when the Tampa Bay Rays picked him in the eighth round. After five years of toiling around the minor leagues, Merrill Kelly started to get impatient about where his career was going. He wanted to go somewhere where the games actually mattered and where the paycheck would be bigger than his phone bill.
So he went to South Korea. In four seasons with the SK Wyverns, Kelly won 36 and lost 25 while posting a 3.80 ERA and winning the Korean Series championship in 2018. Following his championship season, Kelly signed a free-agent deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks. On April 1, 2019, nearly 12 years after he was first drafted by the Orioles out of high school, Merrill Kelly finally made his major league debut. In his win over the Padres, Kelly pitched six innings and struck out three. It was a tumultuous rookie year for him where he led the National League in losses (14) and his team in wins (13).
2020 was a rough year for all. with the COVID-19 outbreak infecting much of the globe, Major League Baseball was forced to drastically shorten its season. Instead of 162 games, each team would play 60. This affected players such as Merrill Kelly, those who were on the bubble, the grinders who didn't immediately stand out. Despite the shortened season and a shoulder injury that would affect his playing time, Kelly still started five games.
He spent the offseason recuperating and came to the 2021 Spring Training rejuvenated. Still, the team was not built well and his record suffered, going 7-11 while the team lost 110 games.
Shōta Imanaga was born on September 1,1993 in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, Japan. Not much is known of his youth, but by 2015, the Yokohama DeNA Baystars drafted him in the first round. He played relatively well in his first two years with the organization. As a rookie in 2016, he went 8-10 and posted a 2.85 ERA. The following year he went 12-7 while posting a 2.86 ERA.
In 2018, Imanaga traveled to Australia to play for Canberra Calvary of the Australian Baseball League. While on loan in the ABL, he posted a skin-tight .51 ERA and a 4-0 record in just 35 innings, striking out an incredible 57 with just a single walk. In just a few starts, Imanaga broke league records for WHIP (.429), hits per nine innings (3.6), bases on ball per nine innings (.3) and recorded the league's second-best ERA.
He returned to Japan the next season rejuvenated, posting a 13-7 record while striking out a career-best 186. The next two years were rough as COVID wreaked havoc on many athletic schedules worldwide. But Imanaga stayed in shape, recording wins when he could. By 2022, he was itching for a full season to commence. Reinvigorated, Imanaga had his best season in 2022, winning 12 games and losing four while posting a 2.04 ERA. This caught the attention of the coach of the Japanese national team, Hideki Kuriyama. Having both played and managed in Japan for many years, Kuriyama knew a good pitcher when he saw one. Watching Shōta Imanaga pitch, Kuriyama knew that he would be ready when called upon.
Perhaps Hideki Kuriyama will be proven correct tonight. Perhaps Imanaga will pitch better than Shohei Ohtani. Or maybe he won't. But what is inarguable is that the starting pitchers for both America and Japan are in this position because of their determination and guile, with neither having the natural talent to be great but the work ethic and patience to be the starting pitchers for their respective countries in the World Baseball Classic Final.