The real Sho­hei Ohtani,

Two-way star looks un­stop­pable early

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Jorge L. Or­tiz

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 twoway 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.

The real Ohtani seems to have ma­te­ri­al­ized in the first 11 days of the sea­son, and he has been a sight to be­hold.

In his first start April 8 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.”

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.

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.

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 Ath­let­ics out­fielder Matt Joyce, who ac­counted for Oak­land’s 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.”

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).

A shot on April 6 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 had only 18 at-bats en­ter­ing the week, 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 in 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 through an in­ter­preter 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 might 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.

“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 along with a tight slider and change-of-pace slow curve­ball. That might not be the case. “He never looks like he’s out of place,” An­gels catcher Martin Mal­don­ado said.

“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.”

KIRBY LEE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

The An­gels’ two-way star Sho­hei Ohtani is liv­ing up to the hype af­ter a less-than-stel­lar spring train­ing.

KIRBY LEE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

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