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Angels

Shohei Ohtani makes his Angels season debut in win over Tigers

Shohei Ohtani
Angels designated hitter Shohei Ohtani fist bumps manager Brad Ausmus before making his season debut against the Detroit Tigers on May 7.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Shohei Ohtani made his long-awaited and highly anticipated 2019 debut Tuesday night when the Angels opened a three-game series against the Detroit Tigers with a 5-2 victory at Comerica Park.

Ohtani, who has spent the last seven months rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, started at designated hitter and batted third. He finished the game 0 for 4 at the plate, but he drove in a run and was walked once.

Ohtani’s impact on an Angels offense that entered Tuesday ranked 12th in the American League in batting (.240), 10th in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.730) and ninth in runs (158) should be felt moving forward.

No player will benefit more from Ohtani’s return than Mike Trout, the two-time American League most valuable player who, with minimal lineup protection in the wake of injuries to Ohtani and slugger Justin Upton, has been walked an AL-leading 31 times, seven of those intentional, in the first five weeks of the season.

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“You know, a lot of people say if you have some guys behind you who can do some damage, you’re going to get pitched differently, you get to see more pitches,” Trout said. “I’m not going to change my approach. I hope I get to see more pitches in the zone, but I think me getting on base and him hitting with guys on base is big for the club.”

Trout, who bats second, entered Tuesday with 24 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. He had four hits in 10 at-bats and was walked 11 times, five intentionally, in those plate appearances. He has even been intentionally walked twice with the bases empty.

The team’s No. 3 batters — Justin Bour (15 games), Andrelton Simmons (12), Brian Goodwin (five) and Albert Pujols (one) — have combined to hit .261 with a .769 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, six homers and 18 RBIs. They rank 17th in the major leagues in average, 19th in OPS, 16th in homers and 19th in RBIs.

The left-handed-hitting Ohtani is the kind of slugger who will force opponents to pitch to Trout more often.

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Ohtani hit .285 with a .925 OPS, 22 homers, 21 doubles and 61 RBIs in 104 games last season, and he was even better after Pujols suffered a season-ending knee injury in August and Ohtani began playing regularly against left-handers.

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After taking over as the team’s every-day designated hitter, a position he is expected to hold this season, Ohtani hit .318 with 1.042 OPS, 13 homers and 36 RBIs in 48 games in August and September and won American League rookie-of-the-year honors.

Ohtani hit .170 (9 for 53) with a .499 OPS, no homers, two RBIs and 22 strikeouts against lefties through Aug. 1 and was particularly vulnerable to sweeping sliders off the plate. He hit .283 (13 for 46) with two homers, 11 RBIs and 13 strikeouts against lefties from Aug. 2 on and finished with a .654 OPS against them.

“Having him behind Mike, if Mike’s getting on base at the clip he gets on base, they’re gonna have to hold a runner on first, and that will open up a lane over there as well,” general manager Billy Eppler said. “You’re just adding a middle-of-the-order bat, and when you can do that, it can help everybody throughout the lineup. I think he’ll bring the tools we’ve all seen, the speed, the power, the plate discipline. I just want him to be the best version of himself.”

Eppler said Ohtani will be the team’s every-day DH, which will force Albert Pujols to share first base with the left-handed-hitting Justin Bour.

“We talked to Albert last year about preparing to play first base more regularly, and the same conversations have taken place this year,” Eppler said. “To nobody’s surprise, he’s been the consummate professional. He said ‘Whatever I can do to help team win, I’m all for it.’”

Manager Brad Ausmus said Ohtani will bat third against right-handed and left-handed pitchers, but when he needs an occasional day off, it will likely be when the opponent starts a lefty.

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“We’ll adapt if we need to, but that’s how I’ll see it,” Asumus said. “Ohtani injects some offense, for sure. Definitely power. I compare him to [Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera]. Miggy is the biggest power I’ve seen off the bat, and Shohei has similar power.”

Short hops

In addition to activating Ohtani, the Angels made several other roster moves, reinstating reliever Cody Allen (lumbar spine strain) and infielder Zack Cozart (neck strain) from the injured list, optioning infielder Luis Rengifo back to triple-A Salt Lake and designating pitcher Chris Stratton and outfielder Peter Bourjos for assignment. The Angels will have 10 days to either trade Stratton and Bourjos or pass them through waivers with an eye toward keeping them in the system. The upshot of the moves is that the Angels, who are still carrying 13 pitchers and 12 position players, have a very thin and rigid bench because one position player (Ohtani) can’t play defensively, one (Kevan Smith) is a catcher and two (Pujols and Bour) play only first base. Utility man David Fletcher is essentially the team’s backup outfielder.

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

@MikeDiGiovanna


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