The power was on display before a pitch was thrown at Target Field on Monday evening.
Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani,who is limited only to hitting this season as he continues to recover from Tommy John surgery, stepped into the cage set up at home plate for batting practice and banged out moonshot after moonshot. One scraped an advertisement for the Thomson Reuters Champions Club in the second deck of the right-center field stands. Another went over the batter’s eye about 100 feet to the left and bounced into a restaurant at center field.
For weeks, Ohtani had assured the media that his power had returned to him in a way he’d never seen. Better than when he hit 22 home runs, 21 doubles and two triples on his way to winning last year’s American League rookie of the year award. Better than when he smacked 22 home runs in 2016 in Japan.
Yet the strength had eluded him in the first five games of his 2019 season, the start of which was delayed until last Tuesday. He rapped out singles, collecting four in his first 21 at-bats, but every ball he drove to the outfield was hit just short enough to be caught.
Then he dug into the left-handed batter’s box for his second at-bat of the Angels’ 5-4 victory against Minnesota Twins starter Jose Berrios. Berrios tried to tie him up with four pitches inside, but Ohtani never offered. Then Berrios gifted Ohtani a fastball down the middle of the plate. Ohtani clobbered it.
“I was seeing the ball really well the whole time but my timing was just a little off and the way I was making contact, the angle was a little off,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “But I’ve been hitting the ball in the air recently and I think it showed today that I’m improving.”
As Ohtani went 2 for 3 with two walks and a double play, the rest of his teammates put together a win against an opponent that has taken the American League Central by storm.
Tommy La Stella hit his team-leading 10th home run off Berrios to break a 4-4 tie in the sixth inning. He sent it 369 feet, just far enough to fall into the left-field seats for the first opposite-field home run of his career. The infielder has been the Angels’ unlikeliest source of power this season.
It was astonishing that La Stella’s and the Angels’ display came against Minnesota.
The Twins (25-15) had assembled a four-game lead by putting up a plus-50 run differential and relying on the likes of Berrios to anchor one of the most effective pitching staffs in baseball. They did nothing of the sort Monday.
Instead, the Angels turned the Twins’ ace into a punching bag. He had allowed only 0.92 walks-and-hits-per-inning-pitched, held batters to a .245 on-base percentage and struck out nearly nine batters per nine innings. By the end of his 5 2/3-inning outing, Berrios had allowed 12 hits, issued three walks and given up five runs. Berrios had never allowed more than nine hits in a start. He also had not given up five or more runs since last July.
“I’m not sure how good he was feeling,” Ohtani said, “but I thought he was making good pitches.”
The Angels put three men on base in the first two innings but didn’t score until Marwin Gonzalez misplayed Mike Trout’s third-inning single in right field. As the ball bounced into a corner, La Stella bounded around the basepaths and scored from first base. Trout scored moments later on Ohtani’s home run.
The Angels padded their one-run lead in the fourth, but it did not last long. Angels starter Tyler Skaggs, who struggled to find the strike zone all evening, allowed a game-tying home run to Gonzalez with two out in the fifth. It was his 100th pitch, and he threw one more to get out of the inning.
The Angels’ offense picked Skaggs up after his five-hit, four-run outing.
“That’s the Ohtani I know,” Skaggs said. “Those are the swings I know when he’s locked in. It’s exciting for me as a starting pitcher to know he’s back and playing good.”
“We all know the power is there and that was a no-doubter,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “You don’t see a lot of balls go the other way from many people that way.”
The bullpen played perhaps a bigger role, yielding only two hits the rest of the night.
After Justin Anderson struck out the side in the sixth, Ty Buttrey threw two scoreless innings while working around a hit in each. Hansel Robles earned his fourth save of the season and the Angels improved to 20-21.
“I think everyone is raising the bar for the next guy,” Buttrey said. “Ando did a great job and I wanted to continue the pattern and Robles did the same thing. No one wants to give up the game-tying run or the game-tying hit or go-ahead hit. Ando comes in, strikes out the side, and I’m trying to strike out the side and Robles is, too.”