Rays rally to beat Angels after Shohei Ohtani splits

Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani throws to the plate.
Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani throws to the plate during the fifth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday at Angel Stadium.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Now you see it, now you don’t. That is Shohei Ohtani’s split-fingered fastball in a nutshell, the Angels right-hander using his trademark disappearing pitch to disarm the Tampa Bay Rays for five scoreless innings in Angel Stadium on Wednesday night.

Then what initially seemed like a questionable move by manager Joe Maddon and another bullpen meltdown laid Ohtani’s splendid start to waste, the Rays storming back for a 3-1 victory that sent the Angels to their fourth straight loss and 10th in 14 games.

Ohtani gave up one hit in five scoreless innings, striking out seven — five with his splitter — and walking six, before wobbling in the sixth, when he walked Yandy Diaz and Joey Wendle to open the inning.


Reliever Chris Rodriguez needed only six pitches to bail out Ohtani, getting Kevin Kiermaier to ground into a fielder’s choice, hitting Francisco Mejia with a pitch to load the bases and inducing an inning-ending double-play grounder from Yoshi Tsutsugo to preserve a 1-0 lead.

But instead of sticking with the hard-throwing Rodriguez to start the seventh, Maddon handed the ball to Junior Guerra, who walked Brett Phillips and gave up a bloop single to Willy Adames before Brandon Lowe crushed a three-run homer to center to give Tampa Bay a 3-1 lead.

Of the 23 times opponents have swung at Angels’ Shohei Ohtani’s splitter this season, 17 missed, five ended in foul balls, and one a weak groundball.

Maddon revealed afterward that Rodriguez departed because of an injury.

“He had a little bit of a shoulder irritation, so I had to get him out,” Maddon said. “The plan was to have him go back out. He complained of a shoulder.”

Maddon said he was “curious” about the 94-mph fastballs Rodriguez was throwing, because he was averaging 96.5 mph before Wednesday night. Asked how concerned he is about the organization’s top pitching prospect, Maddon said, “I don’t know yet.”

The rough outing from the bullpen increased the team’s ERA in the seventh inning or later to 6.33 in the last 14 games after accumulating a 3.00 ERA from the seventh inning on in the first 15 games.

The Angels went one for nine with runners in scoring position, failing to score after loading the bases with one out in the third and after putting the first two runners on in the eighth.

Jose Iglesias struck out and Phil Gosselin grounded out to end the third. Gosselin grounded into a double play and Juan Lagares grounded out to end the eighth.


Ohtani was the lone bright spot.

The two-way star throws his 89-mph splitter with the same arm speed and release point and on the same plane as his upper-90s fastball, but it takes a nose-dive as it approaches the plate, breaking anywhere from 27 to 35 inches. The result is usually a swinging strike, foul ball or weak contact.

Of his 84 pitches Wednesday night, 28 were splitters. Ohtani recorded eight outs with the pitch, and opposing batters are now 0 for 27 against him in plate appearances ending with the splitter, including 23 via strikeout.

“If he has command with his fastball, they have no chance laying off of his split,” Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz told The Times’ Jack Harris this week. “Because he comes out of the same slot, and it comes out firm in the middle of the zone, it drops and it has great late movement.”

The Angels dug themselves in a hole early in an 8-3 sloppy loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday at Angel Stadium.

May 5, 2021

Ohtani struggled with his fastball command in the first inning Wednesday, throwing only nine of his 21 pitches — mostly fastballs — for strikes and walking two batters on four pitches. He escaped the jam by whiffing Kevin Kiermaier with a nasty splitter.

It looked somewhat similar to his last start, on April 26 at Texas, when Ohtani issued two walks, hit a batter and gave up a three-run homer within the first seven batters of the game and threw strikes on only six of 24 pitches in the first inning. Ohtani went on to finish the outing by retiring 14 of his last 15 batters, nine by strikeout.

“I think it’s difficult for any pitcher in the first inning, and I’m the same way,” Ohtani, speaking through an interpreter, said of his rocky starts. “I think I’m trying to rush everything, trying to get out of the inning as quick as I can. My body is a little out of sync, so need to calm down a little bit more and collect myself.”

Ohtani struck out Adames with a splitter to end the second and Phillips with a splitter to end the fourth.

Ohtani has struck out 30 batters and walked 19 in 18 2/3 innings, tying him for the third-most walks in the major leagues, even though he has made only four starts.

“Yeah, I feel like the balls I’m throwing are pretty good, it’s just a control issue,” Ohtani said. “If I’m able to keep the walks down, I should be able to throw another inning or two. That’s going to help not just me but the team as a whole.”

Ohtani’s second start of the season was pushed back by a week because of a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand, and Wednesday night’s start was pushed back by two days after Ohtani was hit by a pitch in the right elbow in Seattle on Sunday.

Ohtani said he had “absolutely no issues with the blister” Wednesday night and is confident he’ll be able to make his regular starts in the team’s six-man rotation “as long as nothing random, no freak accidents happen.”

Maddon believes Ohtani’s command issues are a byproduct of him not pitching on a regular basis.

“Yeah, I think that’s all it is,” Maddon said. “Listen, [Wednesday night’s start] was nothing to lament. I thought it was outstanding. That’s a great one to build off of right there. He kept getting better, and then maybe he hit a wall a little bit at the end, but it was really well done on his part.”

The Angels made a flurry of moves before the game, most notably putting third baseman Anthony Rendon on the injured list because of a left-knee bruise, an injury he suffered when he fouled a ball off the knee Monday night.

An MRI test on Wednesday showed “no issues” outside of the bruise, an indication Rendon should return when eligible.