Once known as the franchise that was squandering Mike Trout’s gifts, the Angels have advanced to the next stage of their evolution.
They are now also wasting Shohei Ohtani’s talents.
Ohtani’s return to the lineup last week was supposed to mark the end of the portion of the season in which the Angels’ primary objective was to survive. Except they didn’t survive.
By the time Ohani played in his first game at Angel Stadium on Friday night, the Angels were 20-23 and nine games out of first place. A 5-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals reduced their deficit to the American League West-leading Houston Astros to 8 1/2 games.
“I still think we could do it,” Ohtani said in Japanese. “The team is improving. We’re moving in the right direction. I think we have a chance.”
A wild card could be more realistic, as the Angels are within 2 1/2 games of the Cleveland Indians, who hold the league’s final postseason berth.
And that is with Ohtani producing upon his return. Playing in front of his mother and sister, who were visiting from Japan, he was one for four Friday to extend his hitting streak to five games.
He is batting .289 and the Angels are 6-3 in the nine games he has played.
The relatively quick start wasn’t a surprise, and not only because of the breathtaking ability Ohtani showcased last year. More than a quarter of the season elapsed before Ohtani made his first plate appearance at Angel Stadium, but the at-bat was already several months in the making.
Before Ohtani could work on his swing, he trained his eyes. While he was rehabilitating his surgically repaired right elbow in Tokyo over the winter, he started standing in a batter’s box while a pitching machine delivered 90-plus-mph fastballs over the plate.
“I was seeing the ball well from the first time I stepped in the batter’s box,” Ohtani said. “But considering how well I’m seeing the ball, I’m fouling off and missing too many pitches.”
Ohtani started batting in simulated games last month and was activated May 7 in Detroit. He played eight of the last nine games of a trip that started in Monterrey, Mexico. His first home run came Monday on a blast that struck the facade of the second deck at Target Field in Minnesota.
“He’s having better at-bats, taking better swings, hitting the ball harder consistently,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “Quite frankly, that’s all we expect going forward. There’s a reason he’s hitting third. We expect him to hit like a three-hole hitter.”
With Trout batting second, the middle of the Angels’ order is one of the most dynamic in baseball.
The partnership is expected to be long term, as Trout signed a new 12-year contract earlier this year while Ohtani will remain under the Angels’ control for four more seasons after this one.
Because Ohtani won’t pitch this season — he isn’t expected to return to the mound until next year — Ausmus will slot him in directly behind Trout on most nights.
The Angels are still short on manpower, as outfielder Justin Upton remains sidelined by a toe injury he sustained in a freak play near the end of the exhibition season.
Upton has started baseball activities.
Asked if his team was approaching full strength, Ausmus replied, “In theory, yeah. I’m always afraid of the dreamed setback.”
The Angels entered Friday as the third-best hitting team in the American League. Their relievers had a collective earned-run average that ranked fifth in the AL.
Their problem is their starting pitching. Their starters were a combined 8-16 with a league-worst 6.01 ERA. A so-so start by Matt Harvey on Friday in which he was charged with two runs in five-plus innings counted as one of the team’s better pitching efforts.
No amount of production by Ohtani or Upton can overcome such shortcomings on the mound.
If this season is as lost as it appears, Ohtani’s return at least reintroduced an element of anticipation that was missing in the last month or so.
In the hours leading up to the series opener, a crowd behind an L-shaped screen by third base swelled to around 20 reporters. Four television cameras were pointed at left field. So were a couple of long-focus lenses.
Ohtani was playing catch.
Later, another crowd gathered around an Angels spokesman, who recited the number of throws Ohtani made at particularly distances.
“Ten at 40 [feet],” the spokesman read. “ Ten at 60, 10 at 80 …”
The Japanese reporters scribbled the numbers into their notebooks. They had already kept meticulous count of the home runs he hit in batting practice — 12 home runs in 37 swings, for anyone interested in such particulars.
Which could be a perfect metaphor for the season. The triumphs won’t be in the big picture. They will come in the details.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez