It’s official. The transformation is complete. Shohei Ohtani has turned the Angels into his own Little League All-Star team.
It wasn’t enough for the Japanese right-hander to be one of the team’s top pitchers. The sweet-swinging slugger batted fourth in Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants before a crowd of 44,544 in Angel Stadium.
So what if it was a one-game cameo in the cleanup spot in place of Albert Pujols, who was given his first day off this season. It was still impressive — and nearly unprecedented — for a player to throw a 37-pitch bullpen session Sunday morning and, two hours later, hit in the middle of the order for a major league club.
“I wasn’t really expecting it,” Ohtani said through an interpreter, “but since it was Pujols’ day off, it’s probably why I hit there.”
This is true.
“If Albert was in the lineup,” manager Mike Scioscia said, “Ohtani would not be hitting fourth.”
But Scioscia said Ohtani, who hit sixth, seventh or eighth in his first 13 games as a designated hitter and clubbed three homers in the first week of the season, “has the potential” to be a middle-of-the-order hitter.
“The quality of his at-bats has been very good,” Scioscia said. “He hasn’t expanded the zone much. He’s handling tough pitches well. And when he gets a mistake he puts a great swing on it.”
Ohtani didn’t see any mistakes on Sunday from Giants starter Johnny Cueto, the right-hander with the long dreadlocks, the herky-jerky delivery, the occasional quick pitch and the devastating changeup.
Ohtani struck out swinging in his first two at-bats, both on changeups, cutting so hard at strike three in the fourth that he cork-screwed himself into the ground.
Cueto no-hit the Angels through five and blanked them on two hits through six, striking out seven, walking two and hitting two batters while lowering his major league-leading ERA from 0.45 to 0.35.
Ohtani did stay back on a sixth-inning changeup, lining it to right for a single to load the bases with one out. Cueto doused the threat by getting Luis Valbuena to bounce into a double play.
By then, the Angels trailed 4-0. Evan Longoria capped a three-run third with a two-run homer to center off reliever Noe Ramirez, and Brandon Belt, who worked an epic, 21-pitch at-bat in which he fouled off 16 two-strike pitches from Angels starter Jaime Barria in the first, hit a solo homer in the fifth.
Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons, a .295 hitter and defensive whiz, was hit in the right forearm by a 94-mph Cueto fastball in the second and departed before the fourth. X-rays were negative. Simmons is listed as day-to-day with a bruise.
“It’s a little sore, but it’s not that bad,” Simmons said. “I could throw, but not easily. I’m waiting for the swelling to go down. But I think I should be ready to go [Monday] if they let me.”
Ohtani, who developed a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand last Tuesday against Boston, had no setbacks in Sunday’s bullpen workout. Scioscia said the right-handed pitcher will start in Houston on Tuesday.
They’ll need more length from Ohtani than they got Sunday from Barria, who somehow escaped a 49-pitch first inning unscathed but couldn’t make it out of the third. That forced an overworked bullpen to use high-leverage relievers Jim Johnson, Jose Alvarez and Keynan Middleton in the last three innings.
The Angels cut the lead to 4-2 in the eighth when Ian Kinsler singled off reliever Cory Gearrin and Mike Trout lined a 93-mph sinker into the right-field seats for his major league-leading ninth homer and his third in three games.
Left-hander Tony Watson, the former Dodger, replaced Gearrin and struck out Justin Upton, got Ohtani to ground out and struck out Valbuena.
Giants closer Hunter Strickland gave up a one-out single to Jefry Marte in the ninth before getting Kole Calhoun, hitless in 19 at-bats, to fly to deep right. Pinch-hitter Rene Rivera singled to put runners on first and third, but Kinsler flied to center to end the game.