‘Everything we thought he could be’: The epic debut of Shohei Ohtani, the two-way player

  • Joined ESPN in 2016 to cover the Los Angeles Rams
  • Previously covered the Angels for MLB.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. — There was a moment in Sunday’s Chicago White Sox-Los Angeles Angels game that would’ve passed as a nondescript subtlety if not for the obvious constraints that have come to define Major League Baseball. It was the start of the third inning. Shohei Ohtani made the final out in the second, a hard line-out to center field, so he quickly retreated to the dugout, dropped off his helmet, picked up his glove and jogged back to the mound. On his way there, he noticed his back pocket was hanging out, so he scrambled to tuck it back in and shoved some of his jersey down into his pants before stepping onto the rubber to begin warming up again.

It felt like Little League.

Throughout the night, as the 26-year-old Ohtani did what hasn’t been done in 118 years, a similar buoyancy pervaded.

Ohtani was going to pitch and hit and let his talent shine without any needless restrictions. Then he threw a pitch 101 mph in the top of the first and hit a pitch 115 mph in the bottom of the first, and it felt as if nothing else mattered. Baseball, even on the fourth night of the year, was everything again, triggering the type of organic joy that can’t be duplicated by new rules or different baseballs.

The way it ended — with Ohtani limping off the field, his left ankle tender after absorbing a cleat from White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu — was a sobering reminder of how fragile this could be.

Angels manager Joe Maddon has stressed since spring training that Ohtani take charge of his career and eliminate unnecessary restrictions.

“The rules are — there aren’t going to be any rules,” Maddon said in February.

It paved the way for Sunday, the first time a pitcher batted in the No. 2 spot of the lineup since 1903. And it was evidenced by the way the top of the fifth inning played out, with Ohtani left in to face Yoan Moncada with the bases loaded, the command wavering and the pitch count approaching 90.

The decision had nothing to do with keeping Ohtani’s bat in the lineup, considering he made the final out in the prior half-inning. And it wasn’t the result of not having someone ready in the bullpen, given how long Steve Cishek had been warming up. It was much simpler than that.

“Did you see the stuff he had?” Maddon asked — rhetorically, of course — after the Angels’ eventual 7-4 win.

Ohtani, admittedly energized by the return of fans to baseball stadiums, felt “really grateful” that Maddon left him in longer than most other managers would have.

“I wanted to get out of the jam and prove to everyone that Joe’s decision was correct,” Ohtani said through his interpreter, “but I couldn’t.”

Had Angels catcher Max Stassi corralled that splitter that Moncada swung through for the third strike, there wouldn’t have been that late throw to first base, which wouldn’t have prompted Abreu to come around and score the tying run, which wouldn’t have left Ohtani in a vulnerable position while covering home plate.

Ohtani said he felt “fine” after the game and added that the impact “wasn’t as bad as it actually looked.”

The Angels won’t place him in the lineup on Monday, but the incident seemingly won’t make them any more hesitant to keep using him aggressively.

“Everything we thought he could be” was how Maddon described Ohtani pitching and hitting in the same game for the first time in his major league career. “That’s the complete baseball player — throws 100, hits it well over 100, hits it well over 400 feet. I mean that’s what we’ve been talking about. He just needed the opportunity to do it. … I think he felt liberated, he felt free. He was out there playing baseball.”

Ohtani’s rare talent was best captured by this astonishing first-inning stat: His fastball to Adam Eaton (officially 100.6 mph) was the fastest-thrown pitch of any starting pitcher this season, and his 451-foot home run off Dylan Cease (with an exit velocity of 115.2 mph) was the hardest-hit homer of the season by any player, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

There isn’t much question about Ohtani offensively. He batted .286/.351/.532 in 792 plate appearances from 2018 to 2019, then mashed five home runs in 13 spring training games in 2021. The concerns center around Ohtani’s pitching. He had accumulated only 79 2/3 innings since his astonishing 2016 season in Japan, and many of his recent outings showed an inability to consistently throw strikes. Then came Sunday, which included …

  • Eight pitches thrown at least 100 mph, more than he had accumulated in 12 prior major league starts.

  • Two strikeouts of Yermin Mercedes, who recorded a record eight hits in his first eight at-bats of the season (one of them came on three consecutive sliders, Ohtani’s third-best pitch).

  • Four baserunners through the first four innings against a lineup that stands among the best in the American League.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody who’s that skilled at both things,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said before the game.

“Oh, he nasty,” White Sox utility man Leury Garcia added afterwards.

Ohtani came from Japan with the promise of becoming the sport’s first two-way player since Babe Ruth stopped pitching, then teased us with two exhilarating months in 2018. What followed was Tommy John surgery, a rare knee procedure, and a nightmare 2020 season that included a 37.80 ERA and a .154 batting average. Ohtani attacked the ensuing offseason with purpose. He trained at Driveline, revamped his diet, altered his weight-training regimen and got into more game-like situations in an effort to fix a delivery that had become inconsistent and a swing that had grown erratic.

When he took the field for his pitching debut on Sunday, the excitement had reached a fever pitch. Maddon’s aggressive approach promoted it, Ohtani’s dynamic spring fueled it and MLB could benefit from it. The industry has become obsessed with a desire to create more excitement, and Ohtani can create that potentially more than any other player. It’s why the answer to whether the Angels should try to use Ohtani as a two-way player was always “of course” — so long as he can remain healthy.

A talent like this should not be restrained.

The Angels clearly agree.

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