Shohei Ohtani 'trending' toward being ready for opening day after first batting practice

Los Angeles Dodgers Shohei Ohtani walks back to the clubhouse during spring training baseball workouts at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Shohei Ohtani wasn’t swinging at maximum intensity Monday.

But, in his first on-field batting practice since undergoing elbow surgery last year, the new Dodgers star didn’t need full power to put on a thunderous display.

During a 21-swing session on a backfield at the team’s Camelback Ranch spring training facility, Ohtani launched 10 home runs and plenty more hard line drives with seemingly relative ease.

It was the most positive step yet in Ohtani’s ramp-up this spring, which has been affected by the torn right elbow ligament he suffered last year — an injury that required him to undergo a second Tommy John surgery in September and will prevent him from pitching this season.

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Monday also confirmed the slugger’s optimism that, despite his elbow issues, he’ll be ready to be the Dodgers' opening day designated hitter when their season starts in South Korea next month.

“I felt really good overall,” Ohtani said through his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara. “Every swing got really strong with some good results.”

When Ohtani arrived at Dodgers camp last week, he had yet to take on-field swings since having his elbow surgery last September. Though he’d long been targeting to play on opening day, going back to when he signed his historic (and heavily deferred) 10-year, $700-million contract this offseason, he still had several important boxes to check in camp to get there.

That made Monday’s session the highlight of the day at Camelback Ranch.

Surrounded by several front-office executives, training staff members and co-hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc — not to mention dozens of reporters and camera crews stationed behind the home-plate screen and in several spots beyond the outfield fence — Ohtani took swings off soft-toss throws from game planning coordinator J.T. Watkins.

His first drive one-hopped off the fence in left-center field. The next one cleared the center-field fence 415 feet away. Over the course of the two rounds of swings — he hit five home runs in each — he routinely eclipsed an exit velocity of 100 mph, according to a tablet stationed in the opposite batters’ box during the session.

“I was planning to swing on the lighter side,” said Ohtani, who was wearing a brace around his surgically repaired right arm during the workout. “But I felt like the swings were feeling really good, which is a really good sign. I think it’s trending towards me being ready for opening day.”

Typically, Ohtani does most of his hitting work indoors in a batting cage, where he focuses on the technical components of his swing mechanics. However, the 29-year-old said he wanted to get outside Monday to “check my power and check my body” — including both his elbow as well as a right oblique that he injured late last season.

“He looks awesome,” Van Scoyoc said. “He’s moving good. He’s moving fast. The ball is really coming off. He’s explosive. So from everything I’ve seen, he looks outstanding.”

Even though Ohtani said he was being “a little careful” with his swings — he estimated he was up to about 90% intensity by the end — the two-time American League MVP still scattered balls around the outfield and a dirt lot beyond center field.

A couple of drives cleared a row of trees planted just beyond the outfield fence. On another pitch, Ohtani grunted as he seemingly popped the ball up — only to watch it carry just beyond the wall in left-center field.

“It's fun to see obviously, watching the ball go really far and fast,” Van Scoyoc said. “He's explosive, has leverage, speed, strength, the whole thing."

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Though Ohtani won’t take outdoor batting practice every day, he says he plans to do so more often during the spring than during the regular season.

“I’ll be mostly doing my hitting work in the cage,” he said. “When there are things I need to check on, that’s when I’ll hit outside.”

On Monday, that meant taking stock of his power stroke — and, in one of the early highlights of the Dodgers' spring training, getting a resounding answer that should keep him on track for an on-time start to the season.

“I think he’s right on schedule from everything I can tell,” Van Scoyoc said. “He hasn’t had any setbacks or anything. He’s doing great. Swinging good. He’s moving well. The ball is coming off. So all good.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.