Shohei Ohtani’s spring training ends on tough note with blister injury, rough outing
Joe Maddon dropped a big “if” Monday afternoon.
“I can’t emphasize this enough,” the Angels’ manager said, responding to a question about his expectations this season for two-way star Shohei Ohtani. “If he stays healthy, all expectations are gonna be met. He is going to be able to pitch really well. He is going to be able to hit really well. He’s going to run and steal some bases. He’s gonna do all those things.”
And why not? Entering Monday, Ohtani was having a storybook spring training, back at full strength and reigniting baseball’s imagination. His fastball velocity was in the triple digits. His opposite-field power had returned at the plate. Days away from the start of the season, it seemed as if he could do no wrong.
Then, in his final tuneup against the Dodgers in an exhibition game Monday night, he suddenly couldn’t get anything to go right.
Ohtani struggled mightily from the start of the Angels’ 10-2 loss at Dodger Stadium, failing to locate his fastball and surrendering three home runs. Then it got worse: In the third inning, he exited the game with a blister on what appeared to be the middle finger of his right throwing hand, an ailment he has battled in the past.
The good news for the Angels is that this one doesn’t seem serious. Maddon said Ohtani should still be able to make his regular-season pitching debut as scheduled Sunday against the Chicago White Sox. Ohtani also downplayed the severity of the blister, which he said originally developed during his previous outing March 21.
“I’m actually glad the blister peeled off today,” Ohtani said through his interpreter, adding: “I have a whole week ahead of me to try to toughen it up.”
Still, Monday was a reality check, all too reminiscent of the injury-hampered seasons that preceded this previously auspicious spring. If Ohtani stays healthy, who knows what’s possible? But if he doesn’t? Angels fans are plenty familiar with that story.
In his 2 1/3 innings against the Dodgers, Ohtani gave up seven runs, four hits and five walks. He struck out three. Of his 63 pitches, only 31 found the strike zone. And in his one at-bat as a hitter, he struck out looking.
Ohtani’s command had been occasionally spotty in previous outings this spring, but on Monday it was absent throughout. He walked three batters in the first inning and gave up a run on a bases-loaded wild pitch, at times looking visibly frustrated after missing the zone with 15 of his first 26 pitches.
In the second inning, he yielded two home runs: a hanging two-strike slider that Chris Taylor belted for a two-run blast, then a 3-and-0 fastball that Corey Seager crushed the other way.
The third inning wasn’t much better. With one out, Ohtani walked AJ Pollock. Then Max Muncy hit a single back up the middle that whizzed by Ohtani’s head. Three pitches later, Will Smith drove a three-run home run the other way.
The Angels can articulate many reasons why they’d like to reach the postseason, and high on the list is getting superstar Mike Trout on that stage.
During the Smith at-bat, Ohtani was inspecting his fingers between pitches. He rubbed his hand on his jersey several times. He fidgeted with the baseball.
By the time Smith was done rounding the bases, Maddon had walked out to the mound with a trainer and Ohtani’s interpreter. They spent several minutes examining Ohtani’s hand and asking him questions. Then Ohtani walked off the mound, getting a pat on the back from catcher Kurt Suzuki before disappearing down the dugout tunnel.
“Physically, I feel fine,” Ohtani said afterward. “But I was trying to throw around my blister, so some of my pitches I was yanking or spiking. That was the only issue.”
Ohtani, who still topped out at 99 mph with his fastball, didn’t want to use the blister as an excuse, though, noting it could be something he has to deal with during the regular season. He said he could still command his splitter, curveball and slider because they make more use of his index finger. His swing isn’t impacted either.
“Our trainer was pretty certain he’s going to be fine,” Maddon said, confirming that Ohtani is still scheduled to get at-bats in Tuesday night’s exhibition against the Dodgers. Maddon added: “The [velocities] were still high. He just had his fastball command off.”
Ohtani has only pitched four regular-season innings since June 2018. He underwent Tommy John surgery that October and was shut down after only two starts in his return last season because of a forearm strain.
But even when he was healthy last season, Maddon and the coaching staff worried about inconsistencies in his delivery. They wondered whether Ohtani needed to temporarily focus on only one role — hitting or pitching — so he could regain confidence.
But then Ohtani took advantage of the first fully healthy offseason of his major league career, rebuilding lower-body strength and visiting the Driveline training center to correct his mechanics.
Superstar Mike Trout calls it “the Maddon effect,” a tangible boost manager Joe Maddon has provided his previous teams. The Angels certainly could use a dose.
Videos of his offseason workouts reassured team officials. His performance this camp impressed them even more.
“One of the main focuses with Shohei this offseason and into this camp has been to raise the intensity a little bit in his bullpens and side work,” interim pitching coach Matt Wise said. “He’s done a really good job of that. … Throughout this whole camp, he’s just looked like a guy who’s having fun playing baseball.”
It’ll take more than one blister-affected exhibition game for the Angels to change their tune. This month has still been the most dangerous Ohtani has looked as a two-way player since the start of his rookie season three years ago. And for the team to make any postseason push this year, the Angels still probably need him to play a leading role.
“What I’m seeing right now is different stuff,” Maddon said before Monday’s game. “It is high-end stuff on the mound. It is high-end stuff in the batter’s box. … This guy just needs to stay healthy.”
Entering the season, it’s the one big “if” that remains.
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