ANAHEIM, Calif. — Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia says there was a plan to Shohei Ohtani’s spring, and now we’re seeing the end result of it.
That plan was clearly to lull the rest of baseball into a false sense of security.
After arriving from Japan amid enormous hype, the two-way star promptly deflated expectations by taking a spectacular pratfall in the Cactus League. He batted .125. His ERA was a laughable 27.00. Questions arose about whether he would make the team or start the season in the minors.
It was just a show, hey.
The real Ohtani seems to have materialized in the first 11 days of the season, and he has been a sight to behold.
In Sunday’s first start in front of the home fans — who turned out 44,742 strong, the largest crowd for a day game since Angel Stadium was renovated in 1998 — Ohtani delivered an outing that prompted Scioscia to say, “That was as good a game as you could ever see pitched.’’
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Of course, he’s only been in the major leagues as a player or manager for 32 years.
A week after Ohtani earned his first major league win by holding the Oakland Athletics to three hits and three runs over six innings, they had another shot at him and came up empty. As in no runners and 11 strikeouts over the first six innings, conjuring thoughts of a rookie throwing a perfect game in his second major league start.
It didn’t happen. Marcus Semien’s one-out single in the seventh ended the suspense in what wound up as a 6-1 Angels victory, and Ohtani settled for seven brilliant innings of one-hit ball, with one walk and 12 strikeouts.
At one point, Ohtani retired 33 of 34 Athletics between the two starts. He has struck out 18 and walked two while yielding four hits.
Final stat line for ShoKKKKKKKKKKKK:
7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 12 K pic.twitter.com/Rw0QWGp2vy
— Angels (@Angels) April 8, 2018
The rest of the league is on notice.
“If he’s hitting his spots, they’re going to have a really hard time with him,’’ said A’s outfielder Matt Joyce, who accounted for Oakland’s only run with a ninth-inning homer off Felix Pena but went 0-for-3 against Ohtani.
“But it’s a game of adjustments. The big leagues is the top level and these guys can make adjustments like that. Next time we see him we’ll make some adjustments and hopefully have a little bit better of a game. But, no doubt, he’s going to have a lot of success. Obviously he’s been doing it on both sides of the ball and he’s an exciting player for baseball to have.’’
Oh yes, there’s that other part of the game at which Ohtani has been pretty good so far this season. In becoming the only Angels rookie ever to homer in his first three home games last week, he took over the team lead in batting average (.389) and on-base plus slugging percentage (1.310) while sharing top honors for home runs (three).
Friday’s shot was a 449-foot blast that landed in the fountain part of the artificial rock formation well beyond the center-field fence.
“It was loud,’’ Semien said. “The guys on their team talk about how far he hits the ball in BP (batting practice), his raw power. He showed it off there.’’
It bears mentioning that Ohtani has only 18 at-bats, which is not just a small sample, it’s tiny. And because the Angels don’t want to lose the designated hitter in his American League starts, and he sits on the day before and after he pitches, Ohtani doesn’t figure to hit more than four times a week.
Plus, his two starts have come against an Oakland team that, while stocked with power hitters, has finished last in the AL West each of the last three seasons and is projected to bring up the rear again.
But suddenly, Ohtani’s quest to become the first major leaguer to pitch and hit regularly in nearly a century doesn’t look so quixotic.
The so-called Babe Ruth of Japan can already claim equaling the Bambino in one regard: He’s the first player to homer in three consecutive games during a season in which he made a pitching start since the Babe in 1930.
“Especially with how my spring training went, I wasn’t really imagining being this good at this spot,’’ Ohtani said after notching his second win and lowering his ERA to 2.08. “I feel better every day. It’s just the first week. Everything went well. There’s going to be a wall somewhere. Once I hit that wall, that’s when I need to start working harder and figure out what I need to do to get past it.’’
That wall came hard and fast at Ohtani early on. Despite his batting practice exploits, he managed no extra-base hits in 32 Cactus League at-bats. So during the Freeway Series exhibition games against the Los Angeles Dodgers at the end of March, he unveiled a different hitting style, ditching the leg-kick he employed during his whole career in Japan for a toe-tap that has allowed him to time pitches better.
It’s the kind of major change that may take some hitters months to implement, but Ohtani — while also tending to his pitching duties — put it into practice in a matter of days or weeks, a sign of the analytical mind Scioscia has noticed.
“I have changed my batting form during the season in the past. I think everybody does that,’’ Ohtani said dismissively. “I will try out different things to find the right feel.’’
When Ohtani decided to try his hand at the major leagues, the scouting reports from Japan indicated he had a better chance to succeed as a pitcher, considering his repertoire includes a fastball that touches 100 mph, a wicked splitter — the pitch Oakland hitters flailed at much of Sunday — along with a tight slider and change-of-pace slow curveball.
But the A’s, who have seen him more than any other opponent, are not so sure now which part of his game is more advanced. They marvel at both his pitching and hitting.
Perhaps Angels catcher Martin Maldonado put it best, saying, “He never looks like he’s out of place. He looks like a hitter when he’s batting and looks like a pitcher when he’s pitching. It’s impressive. We haven’t seen that before.’’
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