A session of batting practice and a game of catch Thursday suddenly had the Angels feeling healthier.
Simple stuff but significant, too, especially when it involves the two most prominent players on a team already besieged by a historical number of injuries.
Shohei Ohtani swung a bat back in Southern California for the first time since sustaining a Grade 2 sprain of his right ulnar collateral ligament on June 6. He was medically cleared to resume hitting early in the day and now could rejoin the Angels next week.
Meanwhile, at Fenway Park, Mike Trout’s sprained right index finger passed its most stringent test yet. Limited to designated hitting since June 19, Trout could return to center field Friday in Baltimore.
Both developments were welcomed and positive strides for the Angels, who still have 14 players on the disabled list, down from the franchise-record 15 they had a short time ago.
The news of Ohtani’s progress was the more monumental as it signaled the reemergence of a player who had been performing successfully as a hitter and pitcher, something not seen in baseball in a century.
He will be limited to hitting for now and is scheduled to be reevaluated by Dr. Steve Yoon in three weeks.
Yoon’s examination Thursday included an MRI exam that showed improvement in the ligament, which was treated June 7 with plasma-rich platelet and stem-cell injections.
The Angels hope Ohtani can avoid ligament replacement surgery, a procedure that likely would cost him at least 14 months of pitching time.
“The biologics that were administered three weeks ago continue to work every single day,” general manager Billy Eppler said. “It stands to reason that he will continue to heal.”
Asked about the possibility of Ohtani eventually needing surgery, Eppler reiterated that the Angels are committed to maintaining a more conservative route of treatment until informed otherwise.
“No doctor has told me that Shohei needs surgical intervention at this time,” he said.
Ohtani’s immediate schedule has him taking batting practice again Friday. Barring any setbacks, he could face live pitching over the weekend.
After playing a three-game series against the Orioles starting Friday, the Angels travel to Seattle for a series that begins Tuesday. Ohtani could meet them there at some point or return when the Angels host the Dodgers beginning July 6.
“He’ll let us know when he’s ready,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “It could happen quickly. It could take a little more time. Whatever work he needs, we’re going to make sure he doesn’t skip any steps.”
In anticipation of hearing a favorable report from doctors, Ohtani had been swinging one-handed and tracking pitches from the batter’s box recently.
Although he was good offensively during the season’s first two months, his production had slowed before he went on the disabled list.
In Ohtani’s last 13 games as a designated hitter, he was eight for 41 with one homer and four RBIs. During that time, his average fell from .342 to .289.
“He had been an important member of our club,” Eppler said. “To hear that he’s allowed to take the next step toward rejoining our club as a hitter is news I wanted to hear.”
Eppler said doctors have assured the Angels that Ohtani’s left-handed swing won’t endanger his ligament because the motion does not put excessive pressure on his elbow.
One issue, though, could be fitting Ohtani and Albert Pujols into just a single DH role. This is a new potential problem since, as a pitcher, Ohtani had three built-in days when he wasn’t in the lineup and Pujols could DH.
Pujols started his 43rd game at first base Thursday after playing only 34 games on defense the previous two seasons combined.
At 38, he isn’t moving as freely as he once did, the Angels always cognizant of helping Pujols maintain his lower body, especially as the season wears on.
“It’s gonna work,” Scioscia said of Ohtani’s return to the lineup. “It’s gonna work. We’re going go get him into the lineup as much as we can.”
Trout returning to center field should help balance his game, the two-time MVP admitting he isn’t as comfortable strictly hitting.
In his last eight games as a DH entering Thursday, Trout had six hits — with no homers — in 26 at-bats.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting back out there, yeah.”
That might be the next positive stride for this hurting team that just got a little more healthy.
5:15 p.m.: This article has been updated with more details and quotes about Shohei Ohtani’s health.
This article was originally published at 1:20 p.m.