Oh­tani hopes to hit, pitch way to his­tory

No 2-way stars in ma­jors in decades

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS | GOLF - Jorge L. Or­tiz

TEMPE, Ariz. – As the 40 or so play­ers shut­tled from one field to an­other dur­ing the Los An­ge­les An­gels first work­out of the spring, it was easy to keep track of Sho­hei Oh­tani.

Just fol­low the pho­tog­ra­phers. Be­tween 150-165 news me­dia mem­bers, the ma­jor­ity from Ja­pan, at­tended Oh­tani’s af­ter­noon news con­fer­ence, and most also watched his ev­ery step in the morn­ing as the two-way player joined his team­mates in a work­out that in­cluded pitch­ers’ field­ing prac­tice and bat­ting prac­tice.

Wher­ever Oh­tani went, a le­gion of pho­tog­ra­phers fol­lowed.

This won’t be merely a spring train­ing phe­nom­e­non, as much of the base­ball com­mu­nity in the USA and Ja­pan is cap­ti­vated by Oh­tani’s at­tempt to be­come the first ma­jor lea­guer in al­most a century to pitch and hit on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

Ja­panese fans kept close tabs on the tran­si­tion to Amer­i­can base­ball of such stars as Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Mat­sui and Yu Darvish, but Oh­tani’s quest takes that at­ten­tion to a higher ech­e­lon.

“We’ve never had that type of player be­fore in Ja­panese pro­fes­sional base­ball,” said Tomonori Maeda, a ca­reer .302 hit­ter over 24 sea­sons in Ja­pan who’s in town as a TV com­men­ta­tor for a sta­tion back home. “Nomo was a pi­o­neer, and then there’s Ichiro, Mat­sui. But there’s a huge amount of at­ten­tion on Oh­tani be­cause there’s never been a two-way player.”

The con­stant scru­tiny might add an ex­tra bur­den to an al­ready ar­du­ous task that in­cludes ad­just­ing to life in the USA, learn­ing pitch­ers and hit­ters in a new league and keeping his skills sharp to play at the game’s top level.

How­ever, watch­ing Oh­tani in­ter­act with his new team­mates de­spite limited com­mand of the English lan­guage, there was lit­tle in­di­ca­tion the pres­sure was af­fect­ing him.

Oh­tani re­ceived high-fives after hit­ting a bat­ting prac­tice home run that ended his group’s round and later chat­ted with catcher Rene Rivera about the cor­rect pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the Span­ish name Jorge. Last week, Oh­tani went on a golf out­ing with other pitch­ers.

“Hon­estly, since my days in Ja­pan, I never re­ally felt the pres­sure every­one’s been talk­ing about,” Oh­tani, 23, said in a ho­tel ball­room packed with re­porters and cam­era op­er­a­tors. “I just go out there and do my job, help the team win and try to make the fans happy.”

Look­ing re­laxed, smil­ing of­ten and dis­play­ing a sense of hu­mor that didn’t al­ways come through as his re­sponses were in­ter­preted, Oh­tani re­peat­edly said he wouldn’t do much dif­fer­ently in his new en­vi­ron­ment, prob­a­bly a wise ap­proach con­sid­er­ing his suc­cess in Ja­pan made him base­ball’s most cov­eted free agent this off­sea­son.

Sign­ing bonus lim­i­ta­tions ren­dered the pur­suit of Oh­tani more a re­cruit­ing en­deavor than a bid­ding war, and he sur­prised many ob­servers by turn­ing down the New York Yan­kees and other suit­ors to sign with the An­gels, re­ceiv­ing a rel­a­tively pal­try $2.3 mil­lion con­tract. L.A. also had to pay a $20 mil­lion post­ing fee.

It has never been en­tirely clear why Oh­tani picked the An­gels, and he didn’t shed much light on that when asked Wed­nes­day.

“I knew some­one was go­ing to ask this ques­tion,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about why I joined the An­gels, but I want you guys to see me as I try to ad­just to the team through­out spring train­ing. I think then you’ll find out why I joined the An­gels.”

Man­ager Mike Scios­cia said Oh­tani won’t work out in the out­field, so the ma­jor­ity of his at-bats fig­ures to come as a des­ig­nated hit­ter. Scios­cia has also said the club ini­tially plans to go with a six-man ro­ta­tion, which more closely re­sem­bles the pitch­ing fre­quency Oh­tani is used to and might help some An­gels starters com­ing back from in­juries.

Even if he han­dles the at­ten­tion well, Oh­tani still faces the con­sid­er­able chal­lenge of per­form­ing in the ma­jors. He won MVP hon­ors in the Pa­cific League in 2016 after post­ing 22 homers and a 1.004 on-base plus slug­ging per­cent­age while go­ing 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA.

So the tal­ent is there, but can it trans­late to the big leagues?

“The part peo­ple don’t think about is the prepa­ra­tion for hit­ting,” start­ing pitcher Matt Shoe­maker said.

“Just like us, we have a ton of work be­tween ev­ery start with work­outs and bullpens, but the hit­ters are hit­ting for hours in the cage. Adding that to the pitch­ing rou­tine, it’s a lot of work. But the cool thing is he has a good sched­ule and he does it well. That’s pretty im­pres­sive.”


A group of re­porters and pho­tog­ra­phers fol­lows Sho­hei Oh­tani as he makes his spring train­ing de­but on Wed­nes­day.

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