Column: Angels’ Shohei Ohtani has his flaws, but he also has the look of a future superstar
Watch how easily Shohei Ohtani touched 99 mph with his fastball Sunday and you will understand why he’s always smiling. See how Ohtani responded to giving up a three-run home run and you will comprehend why he looked as if he never questioned whether he could recover from a statisically awful exhibition season. Look at how much he transformed in his first major-league start and you will think he could one day realize his ambition of becoming the No. 1 player on the planet.
The experiment will work. Ohtani will become modern baseball’s first two-way player.
That was the overwhelming feeling in the aftermath of the Angels’ 7-4 victory at the Oakland Coliseum, where Ohtani registered his first win by limiting the Athletics to three runs and three hits over six innings. He struck out six.
The process could take months or years, but it will happen, provided the Angels remain patient.
The confidence wasn’t inspired by his numbers, but by how he looked.
As the team’s designated hitter on opening day, he was nothing like the off-balance batter he was in the spring training, as he singled in his first at-bat and made solid contact a couple of other times. His improvement on the mound was even more striking.
The game served as the pitching equivalent of his spectacular rounds of batting practice, which have prevented skeptics from completely dismissing his chances as a hitter.
The three hits and three runs charged to him came over a three-batter stretch in the second inning, when Matt Joyce and Stephen Piscotty singled in succession and scored on a home run by Matt Chapman.
Ohtani faced 15 more batters over the remainder of the game and retired 14 of them.
“The way he shut down the hitters after that was impressive,” catcher Martin Maldonado said.
Ohtani threw 92 pitches and maintained his fastball velocity through the sixth inning, when one particular pitch was clocked at 98.1 mph by the stadium radar gun.
Twenty-eight of Ohtani’s pitches flashed 97 mph or faster, including a first-inning fastball that was recorded at 99.6 mph.
Mixing in sliders and curveballs, Ohtani was the particularly effective with his splitter, which he had trouble throwing in spring training because of Arizona’s dry climate.
He said he could throw the pitch with confidence because of Maldonado.
“He reacted well to my low splitters and caught them very cleanly,” Ohtani said in Japanese.
Before the game, the 23-year-old right-hander yawned as he changed into his uniform. When Cam Bedrosian walked by his locker, he bumped fists with the reliever. He looked over to infielder Nolan Fontana and said to him in English, “Good morning.”
“On the whole, I feel like I had a lot of fun,” Ohtani said. “I think those feelings were more intense than the nervousness I felt.”
Ohtani scaled the mound for the bottom of the first inning at 1:13 p.m. Pacific time. Simply being there didn’t provide Ohtani with a sense of accomplishment.
“More than feeling like I made it, I felt like I was just starting,” Ohtani said.
The Angels scored twice in the top of the second inning against Athletics starter Daniel Gossett, only for Ohtani to blow the lead.
“To summarize it in one word, it was wasteful,” Ohtani said. “If I had lost that game, I felt I would have been regretful.
“The contents of the start were largely good. I thought I attacked well early in the counts. What I did wrong was throwing hittable pitches late in the counts. That kept happening and they hit a bad slider.”
There were other aspects of the start that could have been nitpicked. He threw strikes, but didn’t necessary command the ball well in the zone. He threw several letter-high sliders.
But throwing close to 100 mph can make mistakes less costly.
In particular, there was a 0-2 splitter Ohtani threw to Khris Davis with two outs in the sixth inning. The Angels were holding on to a 4-3 advantage at the time.
Davis popped up to end the inning, prompting a relieved Ohtani to tap himself on his chest as he returned to the bench.
“It was a situation where I couldn’t give up a home run,” Ohtani said. “I worked a two-strike count, but at the end, I threw a pitch that was easy to hit. The moment that I threw it, I thought it would be a home run. I felt lucky.”
Ohtani received the game ball. As was the case with the ball he sent into right field for his first major league hit, Ohtani said he would probably to give it to his parents.
“Individually, I think I’ve gotten off to a good start. As a team, too, we’re able to go into the next series with a win,” he said.
Ohtani didn’t make any promises about the future.
“Just because it went well today you don’t know if it will go well again next time,” he said.
That could be the case. But at some point, it will.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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