Column: There is still intrigue despite Shohei Ohtani’s uneven spring training debut
His fifth pitch was crushed to the center-field wall, bouncing over the Coca-Cola sign and into a gaggle of lounging picnickers.
His 29th pitch was hammered over the left-field wall, sailing over the Interactive Mortgage sign and into more blankets and coolers.
In his Angels’ debut Saturday afternoon at Tempe Diablo Stadium, baseball’s biggest spring tourist attraction was pretty good at handing out souvenirs, and pretty lousy at everything else.
Shohei Ohtani pitched to seven Milwaukee Brewers batters and struggled with most of them. His 6-foot-4 frame was imposing on the mound, but his fastball was flat at the plate. His delivery was impossibly smooth, but his results were inarguably messy.
He gave up two runs on a double and a homer in 1 1/3 innings. He walked one. He threw a wild pitch that led to a run. He threw first-pitch balls to five of those seven hitters.
He struck out two but he really wasn’t fooling anybody. Of his 31 pitches, the Brewers swung and missed at only two.
In all, the 23-year-old rookie attempting to become baseball’s first two-way player since Babe Ruth left witnesses with one overriding question.
OK, um, er, when can we see him hit?
“Besides the results, I had a lot of fun out there,’’ Ohtani said afterward through a translator. “So I think it went well.’’
Except this is definitely not about fun. This is about giant worldwide expectations illuminated in Ohtani’s postgame news conference conducted with nearly 100 media members in a tent beyond the right-field wall.
In my 35 years hanging around baseball, I’ve never seen such clamor for a pitcher making his first start in the second game of spring training. I’ve also never heard the type of debut question posed to Ohtani by one of the many Japanese journalists.
“Did you see some hope for the future?’’
He had pitched for all of, like, 20 minutes.
To judge Ohtani so soon is not fair. He’s still such a kid, he was laughingly playing dominoes with teammates less than hour before he took the mound. He lived in a dormitory last year. He will be making a major league minimum $545,000 this year in addition to his $2.3-million signing bonus.
But the blessing of his two-way ability comes with the curse of being hyped for it. With the baseball world closely watching, everything he does will be dissected. With fans from here to Japan strongly rooting, everything is going to be judged. The Angels have said their first priority is to use him as a pitcher, so when he took the mound Saturday, the chilly temperatures were offset by the hottest of lights.
It was probably the biggest spring training game in Angels history, televised in both in the United States and Japan, covered by so many reporters they required an overflow press box on a beer garden patio. Just before the first pitch, an Angels official even shooed away photographers standing directly behind home plate.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,’’ said Jose Mota, the Angels broadcaster in his 17th season. “Globally, there has never been as much attention on an Angels camp as today.’’
It was also surely one of the most crowded Angels dugouts in spring training history, with the Angels resting regulars passing on an afternoon of golf to stay in uniform and watch.
“We’re all interested,’’ said new third baseman Zack Cozart. “We’re interested to see him hit, we’re interested to see him pitch. Someone like him just doesn’t come around, because of, he can do both. That’s what so impressive. We’re all curious.”
It was against this backdrop that Ohtani gave up a leadoff double to Jonathan Villar, who eventually came around to score after a walk and a wild pitch that catcher Martin Maldonado threw into center field.
“He throws hard…but his fastball is straight,’’ Villar said.
He ended the first inning by striking out outfielder Brett Phillips, but only after abandoning the sluggish fastball after Phillips fouled one off, causing Ohtani to cry out in frustration.
“I heard him say, ‘Ohhhh,’’ and I thought, oh gosh, here comes all the off-speed,’’ said Phillips, adding, “Fastball, he might have to locate a little better, just because today it was a little flatter.’’
Ohtani strolled to the bench looking more confident, but then said he grew cold sitting there during a lengthy Angels first inning. He said he’s used to being able to play catch in front of the dugout during the game, a custom that is banned in major league baseball.
“My body was getting cold…I had to struggle at start of second inning, so that was a good learning experience for me,’’ he said.
Struggle, for sure. He gave up a home run on the third pitch to Keon Broxton, then threw a first-pitch ball to Nick Franklin before retiring him on a fly to left and bringing in manager Mike Scioscia for the pitching change.
“It’s just the beginning,’’ Ohtani said. “I’m just going to keep on working, trying to work my way up.’’
While the Angels seemed publicly pleased with his performance — “The stuff is there,’’ Scioscia said — similar struggles in future starts will certainly raise questions.
Could he be affected by that sprained ligament in his elbow, an injury that showed up on a physical exam this winter before the Angels signed him? The Angels knew of the condition and expressed no worry, noting that it was common among pitchers his age.
Or should the Angels prepare for a slow start because he has barely pitched in many months, as last season he made only five starts for the Nippon-Ham Fighters, pitching just 25 1/3 innings while battling a leg injury?.
No matter what happens, while the Angels will show him the greatest of patience, his home-country media will continue to chronicle him like every game is the World Series. Late Saturday afternoon, one Japanese television station was even asking media members to rate his performance from one to 100.
I’d give him about a 40, but, again, he hasn’t even pitched two full innings yet.
“It’s beginning of the year, obviously I’m not 100%,’’ he said.
When it comes to hitting so far, he’s far more advanced, with his batting practices already legendary in their stature.
“Every time I’ve seen him hit, the ball goes about 450 feet,’’ Cozart said.
The Angels have determined he will not bat the day before he pitches, or the day after he pitches, so he probably won’t make his designated hitter debut until later in the week.
That will instantly become the biggest spring game in Angels history. Until he pitches again. And then, until he hits again. And back and forth it will go, Saturday marking only the beginning of the Angels’ wild ride into history.
For all the hassle and worry surrounding Saturday, there remains a strong and giddy hope that the kid can pull this off, and it is that hope that makes the ride worth it.
“We all know what happens if this works out,’’ Mota said. “It’s going to be a ton of fun.’’
Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke
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