On Friday afternoon, a few hours before the Angels faced the Seattle Mariners for the second game of a four-game series, Shohei Ohtani emerged from the tunnels beneath Angel Stadium into the home dugout, yanked on batting gloves and pulled his bat out of the rack. He climbed the stairs to the field, sauntered into the the batting cage set up at home plate and set himself in the left-handed batter’s box.
Ohtani had done this countless times before, but Friday afternoon was a little different. For the first time since undergoing elbow ligament replacement surgery, Ohtani took batting practice with his teammates. He took 33 hacks in a group that is usually reserved for players not in the starting lineup.
Ohtani, who will only hit this season, said multiple times in the last few weeks that he is hitting with more power than he did last season. It was finally on display: He launched nine home runs. At least three were launched to left field and a few bounced off the rock pile in center field.
“It’s more about showing the front office and the medical staff that I’m healthy and I’m strong,” he said through his interpreter when asked if he felt like he need to prove himself to his teammates. “Maybe I can return early.”
While at it, Ohtani focused on his opposite-field approach so he could judge how much progress he’d made. He batted .333 (12 for 36) with three home runs and three doubles on balls hit to left field last year.
Ohtani has been taking outside batting practice with a coach since the end of March. He’s at the point where he’s getting a little anxious.
Now all he must do is face pitchers before he can rejoin the Angels lineup. The Angels decided to have Ohtani participate in simulated games, where the team can control the environment and maximize his repetitions, instead of in minor league games.
“We’re looking at managing his workload to start and as he gets deeper into this progression that he’s on we can up the amount of plate appearances he has,” general manager Billy Eppler said. “So that’s the mindset behind that.”
Ohtani will begin to hit against pitchers sometime next week. Once the Angels deem him ready to face major league pitching, he’ll be reinstated from the injured list.
Ohtani initially hurt his elbow last season on June 6. He returned to lineup as a hitter on July 3 without going on a minor league rehab assignment. In his first 12 games he hit .222 (six for 27) with .707 on-base plus slugging percentage, one homer and two RBIs. In his next 12 games he hit .256 (11 for 43) with .894 OPS, four homers and six RBIs. After Albert Pujols suffered a season-ending knee injury in August and Ohtani took over as the everyday DH in August, Ohtani hit .318 with 1.042 OPS, 13 HRs, 36 RBIs in 48 games. He went on to win the American League rookie of the year award.
Ohtani is not expected to return until May. Asked if he’d like to join the Angels in Mexico when they play the Houston Astros at the Estadio de Beisbol in Monterrey on May 4-5, Ohtani said “of course.”
“I would love to go there,” he said. “Obviously I am going to aim to be back there, but sooner would be nice.”