It was another night of firsts for Shohei Ohtani, the two-way player whose career in the Major Leagues seems to have been star-crossed since he came over from Japan to join the Los Angeles Angels in 2018.
On a night when manager Joe Maddon decided to let him pitch and hit in a game for the first time, thus forgoing a designated hitter, Ohtani homered on the first pitch he faced from Chicago White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease, batting second in the bottom of the first inning at Angel Stadium.
With that Ohtani became the first American League pitcher to homer in the same game he pitched in since the DH was established in the junior circuit in 1973.
As much of Ohtani’s MLB tenure, the evening didn’t end well for the right-handed pitcher and lefty-swinging hitter as he limped off the field, short of finishing the fifth inning, after a wild play in which the pitcher was bowled over trying to cover home plate.
“I had my legs taken out, basically,” Ohtani said. “I felt it somewhere around my calves. At the time, I felt some pain. In fact, it wasn’t as bad as it looked.”
Otherwise, he was only the second AL pitcher to hit in the DH era—the first being Tampa Bay starter Andy Sonnanstine in 2009, when his manager (also Maddon) made a clerical lineup card error.
Maddon batted Ohtani second, the first time a pitcher has hit in that spot in nearly 100 years, and that caused all kinds of other problems when Ohtani couldn’t pitch his way out of a rugged fifth inning.
Madden then had to manage a National League game, replete with multiple pitching changes, a pinch-hitter and a triple switch. The Angels survived it all, winning 7-4 on a walk-off three-run homer by Jared Walsh.
Maddon said he’d take all precautions with Ohtani and rest him in the next game Monday at home against Houston.
“I’m going to give him tomorrow off,” Maddon said. “What he did tonight, double duty, I’m definitely going to pass on him. Make sure he’s OK.”
On the mound, Ohtani was making his first start of the season and only his third since his elbow finally came apart, leading to Tommy John surgery after the 2018 season. He didn’t pitch at all in 2019 and was shut down on the mound for the remainder of the abbreviated 60-game season last Aug. 2 after two abysmal starts.
All the while he continued to DH.
Despite it all, Ohtani, still only a baby-faced 26, has basically been a bargain for the Angels. He made the minimum salary his first three seasons after signing for a bonus of $2.315 million. Only this year did both sides avoid arbitration when Ohtani signed a two-year deal worth $8.5 million, $3 million for this season and $5.5 million for 2022.
The money for playing baseball in the U.S. has never been a big deal to Ohtani, who still earns at least $10 million annually in endorsements.
What’s more important to him is proving his worth playing baseball in the U.S., which despite his prowess he hasn’t been able attain yet on account of all the injuries.
“Physically I’m really feeling well,” Ohtani said. “My at bats tonight were almost all near perfect. When I’m pitching the ball is moving good.”
When he was good on the mound Sunday night he was really good, breezing through the first four innings while throwing seven pitches that reached at least 100 mph on the radar gun.
But it all came apart in the fifth as he lost the plate, perhaps feeling the recurrence of a finger blister that caused his removal from his last start of the exhibition season last week against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers.
He made a wild pickoff throw to first for a two-base error, walked two of his five batters on the evening, tossed a wild pitch that allowed a run to score, and ended the appearance crumpled on the ground trying to cover the plate.
Still, Maddon felt he deserved the opportunity to remain in the game.
“Did you see the stuff he had?” said Maddon, noting that Ohtani was still reaching 99 mph as he pitched deeper into the fifth inning. “He was great. None of those guys hit the ball hard off him. That’s thing. He can even become something more special fighting through that moment.”
Even so at the end, Ohtani struggled mightily, walking both Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu with two outs. He seemed to have Yoan Moncada struck out when catcher Max Stassi allowed the ball to squirt behind him for a passed ball. Stassi’s throw to first was wide, allowing Eaton to score.
Abreu came storming around from third, and Ohtani skied high to get the return throw. When he came down he was knocked over by Abreu who became tangled with Ohtani’s left leg as he also scored.
Ohtani laid flat on his stomach for some seconds before limping off the field, favoring that leg. None of it, though, took away from what Maddon thought was a special night.
“That’s the complete baseball player we’ve been waiting to see,” he said. “Throws the ball 100, hits it 100 and over 400 feet. That’s what we’ve been talking about. He just needed the opportunity [and the health] to do it.”