Ohtani’s show heads home
Impressive hitting, pitching under bright lights vs. Red Sox
Shohei Ohtani’s story, already remarkable enough, will add another fascinating chapter Tuesday when he takes on baseball’s best team of 2018.
Yet let’s not forget the plot points. It’s the story of a 23-year-old kid who could have earned at least $200 million as an unrestricted free agent if he stayed home in Japan for two more years. He couldn’t wait, signing his name to a contract that pays him a $2.3 million bonus and the major league minimum $545,000.
It’s the story of a kid who was ridiculed in spring training just a few weeks ago, with scouts, writers and executives believing he should start the season in the minor leagues and leave his bat behind.
It’s the story of a polite, gracious, innocent kid who grew up in a rural town in Japan, never even owning a driver’s license but dreaming of one day not only becoming a professional baseball player but the finest player who ever lived.
Tuesday night, Ohtani faces his greatest challenge yet, the Boston Red Sox, who at 13-2 have the game’s best record and are off to the greatest start in their 118-year history.
It’s a team with the most expensive payroll in sports, filled with All-Stars, Cy Young winners and MVP candidates, and three World Series trophies in the last 15 years. Never in his life has he ever seen such a powerful team.
Then again, the Red Sox will tell you, they aren’t sure they’ve ever seen such a talent like Ohtani, either.
Ohtani will start the game Tuesday at Angel Stadium on the mound, take Wednesday off and likely be in Thursday’s lineup as a DH.
The Red Sox, cursed for nearly a century after trading Babe Ruth, can’t help but wonder if they’re seeing the ghost of the Babe coming to life.
“Anytime someone does something that’s different than something that’s normal,” Red Sox starter Chris Sale told reporters Sunday, “people are going to raise their eyebrows and people are going to pay attention to it. He throws 100 miles per hour and can take you deep at the same time.
“You have baseball fans, or people that aren’t fans of baseball, tuning in to see this. If you don’t respect it, or if you don’t like or appreciate what’s going on, you’ve got to find something else to do.”
It’s one of sport’s greatest spectacles in three decades, since Bo Jackson was an All-Star outfielder for the Kansas City Royals during the summer and an all-pro running back for the Los Angeles Raiders in the fall.
The scariest part of all?
“He’s just starting to get his feet on the ground now,” Royals manager Ned Yost says. “What we’ve seen to this point is just the tip of the iceberg. When he gets really comfortable and understands the hype and everything that goes along with it, I think you’re only going to see him get better and better.”
Baseball hasn’t seen the likes of Ohtani since the glory days of Ruth. Ohtani became the first player since Ruth on June 13-14, 1921, to win a game and homer in his next start as a non-pitcher. And no one since Ruth, in 1918, has hit 10 homers and won 10 games in the same season.
Ohtani leads the Angels on the mound with a 2-0 record and 2.08 ERA, retiring 35 of the last 38 batters he’s faced. He leads the major leagues with a 35.2% swinging strike percentage, inducing 25 swings and misses in a single game, with all 18 of his strikeouts this season coming on a swinging third strike.
At the plate, he’s calmly hitting .367 with three homers and 11 RBI. He has the highest slugging percentage, .767, of any player in baseball with at least 30 at-bats, with only three players in history producing more RBI in his first eight career games.
“We just sit back and enjoy the show, you know,” Angels All-Star left fielder Justin Upton said. “I thought it was so funny in spring training when people tried to say he couldn’t play. It was just crazy. Everyone wanted to panic, believing he couldn’t do this. There were never any doubts in here. We were taking BP with him. We saw his bullpens.
“Look at him now. You forget about him for four days, pops up for three days, disappears again, pitches one day, comes back and does it all over again. It’s hilarious.”
Ohtani never lacked confidence as a childhood prodigy in Japan, but his teammates will tell you he has the ego of the clubhouse chef. He is baseball’s version of a gym rat, who has no hobbies and would love to spend every waking moment playing baseball, talking baseball or watching baseball. If it were up to him, he’d be in the lineup every day, even hitting on the days he pitches, as if he were in the National League with no DH.
“I’d like to be in the lineup more,” Ohtani said, “but I know it’s going to be a long season. Fatigue is going to catch up to me one day, so I’m going to try to keep myself in shape and let the medical staff look at me every day and be careful.”
Maybe, one day in the dog days of summer, he will get tired. Perhaps that devastating split-fingered fastball will stop dropping at the knees. Maybe those balls he hits into the seats will fade at the warning track. Possibly, he’ll even need a respite from being a two-way player.
Just not now, not when he’s sitting atop the world, leading the Angels to their best start in franchise history, and possibly heights they haven’t seen since getting their last postseason win in 2009.
“Our job has been to make sure Ohtani is comfortable, and we’ve been doing that since Day 1,” Pujols said, “trying to take the pressure off of him and putting it on the veteran guys. That was our main goal all along, and I think we’ve done that. But after watching what he’s doing, it’s almost like he’s taking the pressure off of us.
“Unbelievable story, isn’t it?”
And to think it’s just getting started.
Shohei Ohtani has a 2-0 record and 2.08 ERA, retiring 35 of the last 38 batters he’s faced. KIRBY LEE/USA TODAY SPORTS