On Tuesday in the finale of the World Baseball Classic, Shohei Ohtani struck out Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout to win the WBC title for Japan over Team USA.
Three days later on the backfields behind Tempe Diablo Stadium he allowed a home run Friday to an Arizona Single-A player named Gavin Conticello.
Such are the vagaries of the game of baseball.
“They are young players. It was special for him,” Ohtani said through his interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “I threw those 15 high intensity pitches the other day, so my body was a little more sore than normal. Today’s theme was just to get through my pitch count, use my breaking balls and work with the pitch clock.”
Goal accomplished. While Trout went directly back to California and skipped the final days of spring training in Arizona, Ohtani had his own plan as he went to work Friday on Field 3, away from the bright lights and among a gaggle of minor leaguers.
He threw 78 pitches on the field, approximately 50 more beforehand in the bullpen, striking out eight D-backs minor leaguers along the way, including top draft pick Druw Jones, who also had a single off Ohtani. Jones, by the way, is the son of a former Atlanta Braves great, center fielder Andruw Jones.
Ohtani’s next outing as a pitcher will be Thursday on Opening Night in Oakland against the A’s. He didn’t hit Friday.
“I’m ready,” Ohtani said about facing an A’s lineup that may not be much different than the minor leaguers Arizona tossed out on Friday. “I feel like with all the pitches I threw with intensity in the Classic, I was already ready for Opening Day. This was about fine tuning all of my stuff.”
The two scenes couldn’t have been more stark. Just the other day, Ohtani carried the weight of his country into Miami’s LoanDepot Park in front of a roaring crowd of 36,098. Friday, there may have been 300 onlookers, most of them Japanese media members who track every one of Ohtani’s steps.
On the craggy buttes that hovered beyond the right field fence, three people made the climb about halfway to the top to get a bird’s eye view of the festivities.
It could have been an instant comedown for Ohtani, whose Instagram followers doubled from about 2.1 million to 4 million during the course of the two-week WBC tournament.
But no matter. He’s still the same pending free agent at the end of the season he was before winning MVP of the tournament with a .435 batting average, a 1.86 ERA, two wins as a starting pitcher and one save as a closer.
“Nothing’s changed,” Ohtani said. “Whether I played in the Classic or not, my approach to the season is not going to change. And it doesn’t change anything as far as free agency’s concerned. But I definitely want to win the [World Series] ring with the Angels. As far as that’s concerned, I want to be fully prepared for that.”
Winning the World Series with the Angels this year would be a leap. They haven’t even played .500 ball in any of Ohtani’s five seasons since he signed with Los Angeles in 2018. Their biggest challenge in the American League West is to upend the defending champion Houston Astros, who’ve been to the AL Championship Series the last six years.
Ohtani maintains that his top priority with the Angels, or wherever he signs after this season, is to win the World Series. He won the 2016 Japan league title playing for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, and the most recent WBC title, Japan’s third in the history of the tournament.
“It was the first time pitching a playoff atmosphere like that since my days in Japan,” Ohtani said. “I felt like this is what baseball should be all about.”
Now it’s on to the regular season, and one kid named Conticello was left with a big thrill.
“Get that baseball and have [Ohtani] sign it,” a D-backs coach told him.
It was as good as done.
“All’s well on my end,” Ohtani said. “It’s up to [manager Phil Nevin] and the coaching staff to determine how many pitches they want me to throw in the opener. But personally, I feel really good.”