Why did Shohei Ohtani struggle in his return to mound? No intensity anywhere

Angels catcher Jason Castro comes out to talk to Shohei Ohtani during the first inning.
Angels catcher Jason Castro, right, walks to the mound to talk to pitcher Shohei Ohtani during the first inning Sunday.
(Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani pitched in a major league game Sunday for the first time in nearly two years, and he didn’t record an out before manager Joe Maddon sent him to the bench during a 6-4 loss to the Oakland Athletics.

The most anticipated pitching performance of the year ended less than 20 minutes after it began, with Ohtani giving up five runs.

The disastrous outing opened with a called strike on a 93-mph fastball that entered Marcus Semien’s zone over the heart of the plate. It ended on a single that bounced through a gap on the right side of the infield. In between, Ohtani threw 15 of his 30 pitches for strikes, issued three consecutive walks and gave up three hits and four runs. The fifth run scored when Matt Andriese, who pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings in Ohtani’s place, induced a double play.

Ohtani performed so poorly that he was only able to throw two splitters, his best pitch. Batters only hit .036 (two for 55) off it in his award-winning rookie campaign.

Ohtani’s effort — or lack of it — doomed the Angels. His teammates couldn’t absolve him of the five runs he was charged. With a three-run homer and a sacrifice fly, Mike Trout only came so close.

Highlights from the Angels’ 6-4 loss to the Oakland Athletics on Sunday.

“He just didn’t throw the ball very well,” Maddon said. “I can’t sit here making excuses for him. I’m not going to do that. It just wasn’t his day. The fastball wasn’t coming out, there was no deception in his pitches. The hitters will tell you that. These are major league hitters. The walks were a big part of it. Had he righted himself by forcing those couple three hitters to put the ball in play, he might have had a different result.”

The Angels had eagerly awaited Ohtani’s return to a major league mound since Sept. 5, 2018, when they learned the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm was torn and would need repair. In the 22 months that followed, general manager Billy Eppler and company improved the infrastructure of the team to which Ohtani the pitcher would come back. They signed Trout to a historic 12-year contract, convinced Anthony Rendon to commit seven years to playing in Anaheim and bolstered the team’s pitching depth.


They could have given the lead role of the staff to one of the four top-level starting pitchers available on the free-agent market last winter but they held off. Ohtani, who served only as a designated hitter in 2019, was nearly ready to pitch again. They had no reason to doubt he could lock up the title of rotation ace.

Ohtani’s first attempt to earn the label was so rotten that Ohtani seemed agitated as he spoke to reporters at a faster clip than usual.

Shohei Ohtani isn’t the same player he was almost 22 months ago when he underwent elbow surgery. Will the Angels’ two-way standout rediscover his old form?

Entering Sunday, Ohtani had spent roughly two months pitching to his own teammates without the ability to replicate in his mind the atmosphere of a major league game. He expected he would feel the adrenaline rush back as soon as he faced a rival.

He was wrong. He had such poor feel for Sunday’s game he couldn’t even pitch at full intensity. His average fastball Sunday registered 93 mph — 3 mph slower than he threw it in 2018.

Physical health wasn’t a concern, Ohtani said. And it was not as though Ohtani had failed to approach 100 mph with a pitch since having Tommy John surgery. Eppler said last week that Ohtani’s fastball was clocked at 97 mph before training camp began in July.

Ohtani acknowledged his mechanics on the mound might be a slight issue, but the environment loomed much larger. The gargantuan Coliseum sat eerily quiet, save for the crowd noise emitted by the speakers. The only person in the seats behind home plate was Angels quality assurance coach Tim Buss, who made space for himself among a sea of cardboard cutouts bearing the likenesses of fans.

Offseason acquisition Dylan Bundy pitched shutout ball into the seventh inning to help lead the Angels to a 4-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics.

“I was focused more on throwing the ball than on the feelings of trying to get the hitter out,” Ohtani said in Japanese.

A couple of hours before Ohtani emerged for his warmups, Maddon sat in his stadium office in front of an iPad screen and told reporters in a videoconference call Ohtani was “ready to rock and roll” with several innings of work. He gushed about Ohtani’s ability to manipulate the ball. He said he felt fortunate to watch Ohtani blossom from up close.

“He’s just dripping with talent on all levels,” Maddon said.

Ohtani didn’t live up to Maddon’s words Sunday. But he will receive more chances to prove them right.

Mike Trout hits his first home run of the 2020 MLB season against the Oakland Athletics.

A look at key factors in the Angels’ 6-4 loss to the Oakland Athletics on Sunday:

1. Trout’s first extra-base hit: Mike Trout’s third-inning homer was the 286th of his career but only his first on a 3-and-0 pitch. Trout rarely swings in such counts. Of the previous 105 pitches he saw in 3-and-0 counts entering Sunday, 42 were balls and 58 were called strikes.

2. Goodwin wheeling: Right fielder Brian Goodwin raced after a fly ball and crashed into the Coliseum fence to rob an extra-base hit from Tony Kemp in the bottom of the fourth inning. Minutes later, he sparked a small-ball rally in the fifth inning. On a slow roller to shortstop Marcus Semien, Goodwin burst out of the box and secured an infield single in 4.26 seconds. His sprint speed of 29.2 feet per second was 1.3 ft/sec better than his average last year. MLB average sprint speed is 27 ft/sec.

3. Andriese’s efforts: Right-hander Matt Andriese became the third pitcher in the last 25 years to throw 5 2/3 scoreless innings in his Angels debut. Jered Weaver and Nick Tropeano were the others. Andriese was expected to start a game at Angel Stadium this week. But manager Joe Maddon warned Andriese he’d be the first pitcher out of the bullpen if a starter faltered during the season-opening series.

Times columnist Dylan Hernández contributed to this report.