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Column: Shohei Ohtani takes his first step into the unknown

On Christmas Day, about a month before Shohei Ohtani traveled to the United States for the start of spring training with the Angels, the Nippon-Ham Fighters invited their fans to the Sapporo Dome. Ohtani wanted to say farewell.

Near the end of the ceremony, Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama presented Ohtani with a pitcher’s rubber. Inscribed on the bottom of the white block was a message from Kuriyama: “I believe you will become the No. 1 player in the world.”

An enormous distance remains between that distinction and where Ohtani is now as a 23-year-old prospect who was one for five as the No. 8 hitter in the Angels’ opening day lineup. The destination is far enough to where Ohtani acknowledges he doesn’t know what it looks like. Ohtani, who will be the team’s starting pitcher on Sunday, is not alone. Babe Ruth played some seasons as a two-way player almost a century ago.

Ohtani and the Angels are venturing into the unknown, guided only by a belief they share with Kuriyama.

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The sentiment was reflected in a response Ohtani provided Thursday in the aftermath of an 11-inning, 6-5 defeat to the Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum. Asked how spring training altered his understanding of the challenge in front of him, Ohtani replied in Japanese, “It’s still too early to feel any of that. In the midst of battling throughout the season, I’m sure there will be parts that I will find amazing, as well as times when I feel I’m making progress. I’m looking forward to that.”

What was unsaid but implied was that he thinks his talent will win out. It always has.

His physical gifts are obvious, even in the major leagues, where he is surrounded by better athletes than he ever encountered in Japan. His rounds of batting practice were again spectacular on Thursday, with the left-handed-hitting Ohtani launching a baseball over the row of luxury suites and into the second deck over the center-field wall.

He turned what should have been a routine ninth-inning groundout to second base into a close play. He stands 6 feet 4 and weighs 200-plus pounds, but scouts have clocked him from the batter’s box to first base in 3.8 seconds, which is elite speed.

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And he’s consciously making the most of what he has.

Ohtani’s parents attended the game Thursday, which prompted a question about the most important baseball lesson he ever received from his father, a former Japanese industrial league player.

“Maybe to run hard to first base,” he said. “It’s basic, but I think it’s very important.”

Later, Ohtani talked about paying attention to every at-bat taken by the Angels, even in innings in which he was unlikely to hit. He wanted to familiarize himself with the opposing relievers.

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“I might face them next time, so I think it’s necessary to be prepared,” he said.

Ohtani has already made adjustments.

Starting in his last exhibition game, which was Monday against the Dodgers, Ohani replaced his leg kick with a toe tap.

Ohtani’s leg kick made him especially susceptible to inside fastballs. In his first at-bat Thursday, he lined a first-pitch cutter on the inside of the plate by Athletics starter Kendall Graveman into right field. The second-inning single advanced Andrelton Simmons to second base, positioning the shortstop to score on a ground-rule double by Martin Maldonado.

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Ohtani made solid contact with another inside pitch in the fourth inning, but this one went directly to second baseman Jed Lowrie.

“I don’t know if you get a sense of how hard he’s worked to get acclimated to baseball in the United States,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

Ohtani grounded out again in the sixth and ninth innings, then struck out in the 11th on a high 94-mph fastball by Chris Hatcher.

If Ohtani’s exhibition season was marked by underwhelming statistics, it was also striking in his extreme calm. He remained composed Thursday. Opening day couldn’t shake him.

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Asked what it was like to have his parents in the stands, he looked up while mouthing to himself, “What was it like …?”

He smiled.

“I’m glad they made it here safely,” he said.

He didn’t crack a smile when he reached base in his first at-bat and he later explained why.

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“I was happy, but the game had just started, so I didn’t have the luxury of being too emotional,” he said.

The ball he hit was retrieved and delivered to him after the game.

“My parents are here, so I think I will give it to them,” he said.

Ohtani claimed he was as calm as he appeared.

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“As a batter, I’ve never been nervous,” he said.

So will he be nervous on Sunday when he pitches?

“That will probably be the case,” he said.

That will be a first.

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dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Twitter: @dylanohernandez


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