Shohei Ohtani experiment off to impressive start

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

OAKLAND, Calif. — He left the pitcher’s mound in the sixth inning with the third out somewhere overhead, climbing in the sky, losing energy and beginning to descend. As the left side of his infield gathered itself behind him, Shohei Ohtani fanned his chest with his hand, pretending to restart a heart seized by the horror of an overthrown two-strike split-fingered fastball, middle-middle, offered to the Oakland A’s cleanup hitter.

Dozens of Los Angeles Angels fans applauded from behind the first-base dugout. His father, Toru, stood with them.

Ohtani had been back and forth to that mound for better than two hours. The walk here is longer than most. It is only a slog, however, if he would allow it be, if he believed it to be, and the long, lanky right-hander hardly seemed bothered.

He’d arrived months ago a mystery, the 23-year-old from Japan with the thunderous bat and a prodigy’s arm, eventually lugging a rather clunky spring training into April. He tip-toed across the foul line, picked up a baseball waiting on the mound, smoothed a rut in the dirt with his toe, and began the pitching portion of his big league career with a 97-mph strike.

Three days after batting eighth and singling once for the Angels, Ohtani struck out six A’s and allowed three hits and three runs across six innings. He was the winning pitcher. Players such as him do not exist anymore except for him.

And now the question is not whether he can hit here or pitch here, but if he can do it again, if he can keep it up, because that’s the hard part, the part that separates the major leaguers from the merely talented. And that is progress.

The Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani works against the Oakland Athletics during the second inning on Sunday. (AP)
The Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani works against the Oakland Athletics during the second inning on Sunday. (AP)

You could, of course, argue the opposite, that the journey from a small town in Japan to this mammoth concrete stadium on the fourth day of the 2018 season will always be the most rigorous. That the decision to abandon Japan’s highest professional league for a longer season, against greater competition, half-a-day’s flight from his family and familiar routine, all for relative pennies, is the greater challenge. The greater sacrifice.

Ohtani arrived in the clubhouse nearly three hours before his start. He towed a small piece of luggage. He wore a white dress shirt, open at the collar, and black slacks.

“Sho-time!” Mike Trout announced.

Ohtani changed into red gym shorts, a red hoodie and shower shoes. He sat in front of his locker and released a long yawn. And he waited.

For a job that will ask more of him than most, there will be a good amount of that. Part of that is baseball, about the standing-aroundest sport ever.

The rest is the balance of Ohtani at work and Ohtani at recovery. If Mike Scioscia adheres to the design that Ohtani be rested on the days before and after his starts, Ohtani would not be in the lineup again until Tuesday night at the earliest. By then, he will have taken five at-bats in six days, which maybe is a first-week scheduling fluke, but also is a reality of the two-way gig.

Assuming the Angels remain on their pitching schedule, Ohtani would pitch again Saturday in Anaheim, his home pitching debut, again against the A’s. So, he could DH again Tuesday and Wednesday. The Angels are off Thursday. By next Monday, over 12 days, he’d be in the neighborhood of 15 plate appearances. Maintenance of, improvement of, a batting stroke is not an at-bat-a-day-plus exercise.

This is the unknown, where there are no answers until the games have been played, the 99-mph fastballs chased by the 90-mph splitters, some he will throw, others he will attempt to barrel. Not all at once. Scioscia has mirthfully observed that having Ohtani is having two different players, one who stretches with pitchers, the other who takes batting practice with hitters, the real division coming on game nights.

“I thought, why don’t we give him two numbers?” Scioscia said.

Sunday, Ohtani followed that first fastball with a slider, then another. He struck out Marcus Semien. Jed Lowrie popped out to the catcher. Matt Olson struck out on a splitter. After 13 pitches, his first inning was done. He’d left behind the hitter-friendly desert climate and a spring ERA in the 20’s for a sunny, warm afternoon by the Bay, and along came his fastball velocity, licking 100, and along came the bite on his splitter and slider.

He struck out Khris Davis to begin the second inning, then gave up a single to Matt Joyce on a fastball away and another to Stephen Piscotty on a fastball that was down. A one-strike slider to Matt Chapman arrived at the knees and landed over the fence in left-center field. Three runs in eight pitches. A small but exceedingly invested crowd roared at the sights and sounds of their squad de-mystifying the Japanese ace.

“After the three-run shot, Scioscia came up to me and said, ‘You’re doing fine. Just go from here now,’ ” Ohtani recalled.

His catcher, Martin Maldonado, provided similar encouragement. Ohtani faced 15 more batters. One reached base on the only walk he’d issue, seven batters after Chapman’s home run. After the walk, the next eight A’s went down without incident. Two innings he pitched in a one-run deficit. The last two, with a one-run lead.

“Obviously,” Ohtani said, “I’m very happy, satisfied, with my outing. More than that I’m happy my team got the victory.”

Angels players filled their duffel bags afterward. They were headed home. At the mention of Ohtani, many raised their eyebrows and nodded at what they’d seen. This was a different kind of pitcher. Sure, imprecise in spots. He’d thrown 92 pitches in six innings, all from a modified stretch. But, also, 23. And sure of himself. His 88th and 89th pitches clocked at 98 mph. When he’d walked Joyce on five pitches in the fourth, his first two pitches to the next hitter, Piscotty, were taken for strikes. Then he struck out Chapman on a full-count splitter.

“Nasty, dude,” Albert Pujols said. “The splitter, man.”

Maldonado said, “I wasn’t expecting anything less,” and yet, he added, “Yes, I learned something. The way he was attacking the hitters was impressive. The fastball command today, he didn’t have that much in spring training.”

Near the end, when Ohtani was all but finished, six innings enough for one day and a warmed reliever standing by for the seventh inning, there was only a single pitch left to throw. He’d survived it by a grain or two of Davis’ bat. He tended to his frightened heart. Then he pointed at Maldonado.

“When I released it I thought it was going to be a home run,” Ohtani said. “It wasn’t. I was pretty lucky right there.”

They walked off together, the hard part over. Unless it has just started.

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