Ohtani’s show heads home

Im­pres­sive hit­ting, pitch­ing un­der bright lights vs. Red Sox

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS | MLB - Bob Night­en­gale

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

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