Shohei Ohtani quietly hones his pitches in ‘B’ game between Angels and Brewers
When pursuing the historic, something so wildly ambitious that it hasn’t been done successfully in nearly 100 years, the journey can drop you in some strange places.
So, on Friday, there Shohei Ohtani stood, on a mound in the middle of a largely vacant spring training stadium, pitching to a player wearing a Milwaukee Brewers jersey, jersey No. 92.
It was barely 10 a.m.
The place was so quiet that the chatter coming from the dugouts could be heard over the birds chirping nearby.
The setting was an odd one, an awkward one too, especially for a sensation. And an international sensation, at that.
Six pitches later, Ohtani had the first of his eight strikeouts, his second exhibition start as an Angel featuring plenty of highlights for something that lasted only 2 2/3 innings.
That’s right, 2 2/3 innings, meaning Ohtani struck out every batter he retired, while giving up two runs and four hits to the others.
“I feel like I made a step forward,” he said later through an interpreter. “I am more satisfied with this outing.”
This was a “B” game, a common practice in spring training, teams arranging the morning matchups typically for the benefit of pitchers trying to build arm strength.
Though the stands were largely unoccupied, the anticipated attention back in Japan was such that the practice game was shown on live television, despite the first pitch coming at 2 a.m. Saturday, Tokyo time.
Whatever the audience, Ohtani expertly bent breaking pitches, fired mid-90s fastballs and generally displayed the promise that had teams lining up for the chance to recruit him in the offseason.
“That slider…” catcher Rene Rivera said. “You see the hitters jumping back thinking they’re going to get hit and the ball is right on the corner.”
Ohtani threw 52 pitches, only one of which was hit hard. He relied on his slider and fastball and mixed in his curve and split-finger pitch, explaining, “I felt like I was in the zone.”
He probably meant the strike zone, though Ohtani did appear to be fairly locked in, as well. Two of the Brewers’ hits deflected off the gloves of Angels.
He struck out the side in the first inning and had two strikeouts in the second, which was ended early for purposes of Ohtani’s pitch count.
In the third, he struck out all three hitters he faced and needed only 13 pitches to do so, Ohtani finishing with his most impressive stretch yet as an Angel.
“He’s working hard for it,” Rivera said. “Japanese players, they’re really dedicated to their jobs. You can tell when they work so hard to be the best they can be.”
Ohtani’s biggest obstacle Friday might have been growing accustomed to the mound as he continues to adjust from playing in Japan.
In his first start, during which he worked 1 1/3 innings against the Brewers, he also struggled trying to stay warm while the Angels were batting. On Friday, he spent time between innings throwing a baseball against a wall in the bullpen.
“The main thing for him,” Rivera said, “is to just feel comfortable out there.”
Playing three hours before Garrett Richards would throw the first pitch in the Angels’ Cactus League game against the Chicago Cubs, Ohtani did appear more settled in this start.
His control and command both looked better and, Rivera explained, the pitches he bounced were done so on purpose.
“Shohei was what we expected,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “He pitched a strong three innings.”
In Japan last season, Ohtani’s team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, drew an average of about 30,000 per game. His first two spring training starts combined have come before fewer than 7,000.
As for Ohtani pursuing a big league career as a hitter and pitcher, Rivera likened his potential two-way impact to that of Madison Bumgarner, the San Francisco Giants pitcher known for his skills with a bat.
Rivera also said playing both ways is a pursuit in which he has no interest.
“I couldn’t do that,” he said. “All the running that pitchers do and to hit at the same time too, that’d be tough. But he’s done it before in Japan. I think he feels comfortable with it. He likes it.”
On Friday, the Angels liked it, too.
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