ANAHEIM, California – There was a moment in Sunday’s Chicago White Sox-Los Angeles Angels game that would have passed off as a nondescript subtlety, if not because of the obvious constraints that have come to define Major League Baseball. It marked the start of the third inning. Shohei Ohtani made the last out in the second, a hard lineout to midfield, so he quickly retreated to the dugout, took off his helmet, grabbed his glove and ran back to the mound. On the way he noticed that his back pocket was hanging out, so he scrambled to tuck it back in and slid part of his sweater into his pants before stepping on the rubber to warm up again.
It felt like Little League.
During the night, when 26-year-old Ohtani did what hadn’t been done in 118 years, a similar buoyancy permeated.
Ohtani would pitch and hit and let his talent shine without unnecessary constraints. Then he threw a throw at 101 mph in the first and hit a throw at 115 mph in the bottom of the first, and it felt like nothing else mattered. Baseball, even on the fourth night of the year, was everything again, causing the kind of organic joy that can’t be duplicated by new rules or other baseballs.
The way it ended – with Ohtani limping off the field, his left ankle tender after absorbing a cleat from White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu – was a sobering reminder of how vulnerable this can be.
Angels manager Joe Maddon has emphasized since spring training that Ohtani is taking charge of his career and eliminating unnecessary restrictions.
“The rules are – there will be no rules,” Maddon said in February.
It paved the way for Sunday, the first time that a pitcher had hit second in the lineup since 1903. And it showed in the way the top of the fifth inning played out, with Ohtani battling against Yoan Moncada. the bases are loaded, the command hesitates and the pitch count is approaching 90.
The decision had nothing to do with keeping Ohtani’s bat in the line-up, as he made the last out in the previous half inning. And it wasn’t because no one was ready in the bullpen, given how long Steve Cishek had been warming up. It was much easier than that.
“Did you see the stuff he had?” Maddon asked – rhetorically, of course – after the Angels’ eventual 7-4 victory.
Ohtani, buoyed by the return of fans to baseball stadiums, felt “very grateful” that Maddon had left him longer than most other managers would have done.
“I wanted to get out of trouble and prove to everyone that Joe’s decision was right,” Ohtani said through his interpreter, “but I couldn’t.”
If Angels-catcher Max Stassi had brought in that splitter that Moncada swung through for the third at bat, there wouldn’t have been that late pitch to first base, which wouldn’t have prompted Abreu to come by and score the tying run, what not have left Ohtani in a vulnerable position while covering home plate.
Ohtani said he felt “fine” after the game, adding that the impact was “not as bad as it actually looked”.
The Angels won’t put him in the lineup on Monday, but the incident apparently won’t hesitate to keep using him aggressively.
“All we thought he could be” was how Maddon described Ohtani as pitching and hitting in the same game for the first time in his Major League-career. That’s the complete baseball player – throws 100, hits him over 100, hits him over 400 feet. I mean, we talked about that. He just needed the chance to do it. … I think he felt set himself free, he felt free. He played baseball. ”
Shohei Ohtani struckout Yoan Moncada, but hit the ball through the catcher and scored two runs after Ohtani was shaken by a collision at the plate.
Ohtani’s rare talent was best captured by this astonishing statistic in the first inning: his fastball to Adam Eaton (officially 100.6 mph) was the fastest pitch by any starting pitcher this season, and his 451-foot homerun to Dylan Cease (with a run-out speed of 115.2 mph) was the hardest hit homer of the season by a player, according to ESPN statistics and information
There is not much doubt about Ohtani. He hit .286 / .351 / .532 in 792 at bats from 2018 to 2019, then hit five home runs in 13 spring training games in 2021. Worries revolve around Ohtani’s pitching. He had collected just 79 2/3 innings since his amazing 2016 season in Japan, and many of his recent appearances showed he was unable to throw strikes consistently. Then came Sunday, including …
Eight pitches went at least 100 mph, more than he collected in 12 previous Major League-starts.
Two strikeouts by Yermin Mercedes, who had a record eight hits in his first eight at-bats of the season (one of which came on three consecutive sliders, Ohtani’s third best pitch).
Four baserunners in the first four innings against a line-up that is one of the best in the American League.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so adept at both things,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said before the game.
“Oh, he’s filthy,” White Sox assistant Leury Garcia added later.
Ohtani hailed from Japan with a promise to become the sport’s first two-way player since Babe Ruth retired from pitching, then teased us for two exciting months in 2018. What followed was Tommy John surgery, a rare knee surgery and a nightmare 2020 season that included a 37.80 ERA and a .154 batting average. Ohtani deliberately attacked the following low season. He trained at Driveline, overhauled his diet, changed his weight training, and got into more game-like situations in an attempt to fix a delivery that had become inconsistent and a swing that had become erratic.
When he took the field for his pitching debut on Sunday, the excitement had reached a feverish level. Maddon’s aggressive approach promoted it, Ohtani’s dynamic spring fed it, and MLB was able to take advantage of it. The industry has become obsessed with the desire to create more excitement, and Ohtani can create that potential more than any other player. Therefore, the answer to whether the Angels should try to use Ohtani as a two-way player was always “natural” – as long as he can stay healthy.
A talent like this cannot be stopped.
The angels clearly agree.
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