It was during a rather minor postgame procedure Wednesday that something major suddenly shook the Angels’ season.
While having a finger blister worked on, Shohei Ohtani mentioned to the team’s medical personnel that his right elbow was stiffening.
Tests revealed a grade 2 sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament, an injury that likely will cost Ohtani a significant portion of what remains of this season and perhaps all of what remains.
And it might be worse than that.
The team announced the rookie received a platelet-rich plasma and stem cell injection Thursday with hopes of avoiding ligament replacement surgery that could prevent Ohtani from pitching well into the 2019 season, as well.
“Any time you hear that news on any pitcher,” catcher Martin Maldonado said, “I think it’s devastating.”
Ohtani, 23, will be reevaluated in three weeks, at which point the Angels will have a better understanding of the effectiveness of the more conservative treatment.
General manager Billy Eppler said he is “hopeful” Ohtani can recover without surgery, the Angels already having lost pitchers JC Ramirez, Keynan Middleton and Blake Wood to elbow operations this season.
In December, just after Ohtani became an Angel, medical records leaked to Yahoo Sports indicated that he had a first-degree sprain of the UCL. He reportedly was treated with a platelet-rich plasma injection in October 2017.
The grade 2 diagnosis this week means the injury worsened as Ohtani was putting together an All-Star caliber start to his big-league career.
“We’re losing two significant parts of our club,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “What he did on the mound to this point is really special…What he’s done in the batter’s box as a left-handed bat is very important to us.”
Ohtani is 4-1 with a 3.10 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 491/3 innings over nine starts. As a batter, he’s hitting .289 with six home runs and 20 RBIs in 34 games.
His emergence had sparked discussion about Ohtani’s potential participation in the upcoming All-Star Game and home run derby. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred more than once this season has referenced how his popularity has helped the sport overall.
Ohtani was removed from his most recent start Wednesday after four innings because of a recurrence of his blister issue, something that derailed him briefly in April.
By all accounts, the Angels knew nothing of his elbow being a concern until he mentioned the stiffness.
After Ohtani threw a season-high 110 pitches on May 20 in a victory over Tampa Bay, his next start was pushed back because of what the Angels described as “workload management.”
He returned to pitch May 30 in Detroit but was limited to five innings because of a pair of rain delays.
“He helps us win, and it’s tough losing somebody who helps you win,” infielder Zack Cozart said. “We just gotta keep playing. Hopefully, Showy comes back later in the year healthy and ready to help us.”
Ohtani’s status as baseball’s first regular two-way player in 100 years makes even his injuries unique.
Eppler said that were he strictly a designated hitter, Ohtani “probably” could continue playing.
Such a decision, however, would risk Ohtani further damaging his elbow, something Eppler said the Angels are unwilling to do.
The timing of his return also could be impacted by whether the player in question is Ohtani the pitcher or Ohtani the hitter. As a left-handed batter, Ohtani leads with his right arm.
Cozart had elbow ligament replacement surgery on his lead (left) arm in August 2011 and was able to resume hitting normally the next spring.
For now, Scioscia said the Angels will continue to operate with a somewhat flexible rotation, just one not as flexible as it had been with Ohtani. Rookie Jaime Barria is now a candidate to remain with the Angels full-time instead of shuttling between Anaheim and triple-A Salt Lake.
The greater question could be how shifting away from a six-man rotation affects the remaining pitchers, each of whom has performed as if benefiting from the extra rest. Entering Friday, the Angels starters were third in the American League with a 3.58 ERA.
On offense, Ohtani’s absence means Albert Pujols could receive more at-bats as the designated hitter with Luis Valbuena, Jefry Marte and the recently promoted Jose Fernandez playing more first base.
“It’s a disappointment, but we just have to keep going,” Scioscia said. “The schedule doesn’t stop. We know he was doing a lot of special things for us … but you’ve got to move on.”