‘Japanese Babe Ruth’ Shohei Ohtani dominant on the mound, at the plate


FIRST WIN — Los Angels Angels’ Shohei Ohtani made his pitching debut on April 1 against the Oakland A’s. Some 14,644 fans turned up at the ballpark to see the rookie known as the “Japanese Babe Ruth” for being a two-way player. photo by Scott Nakajima/Nakajima Photography

FIRST WIN — Los Angels Angels’ Shohei Ohtani made his pitching debut on April 1 against the Oakland A’s. Some 14,644 fans turned up at the ballpark to see the rookie known as the “Japanese Babe Ruth” for being a two-way player.
photo by
Scott Nakajima/Nakajima Photography

In his major league pitching debut in Oakland, Calif. and in his home pitching debut in Anaheim, Shohei Ohtani, the highly touted two-way player from Japan, earned the wins as the Los Angeles Angels beat the Oakland Athletics, 7-4, on April 1 and again, 6-1, on April 8. Sandwiched between his wins, Ohtani belted three home runs in three games to earn American League Player of the Week honors.

Ohtani’s week began when he allowed three runs on three hits over six innings in his pitching debut. He walked one and struck out six during a start that showed flashes of his ability to dominate hitters at the major league level. In his next start, Ohtani did, in fact, dominate the Oakland lineup, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning. He struck out 12 hitters in his seven innings of work and gave up just one hit and allowed one walk to get his second win in as many starts.

The 23-year-old right-hander from Oshu, Japan, signed with the Angels this past off-season after playing five seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters in the Japanese Professional Baseball League. He was an All-Star in each of those seasons and is a bona fide superstar in Japan for his talents both as a pitcher and hitter.

In 2016, Ohtani won 10 games as a starting pitcher with an 1.86 earned run average while slugging 22 home runs with a .322/.416/.588 slash line as a hitter. He also excelled as a pitcher in 2015 when he won 15 games with a 2.24 ERA and struck out 11 hitters per nine innings.

Ohtani’s two-way talents earned him the nickname “the Japanese Babe Ruth,” after the major league legend who slugged 714 home runs (which ranks third all-time in the major leagues) and won 94 games as a pitcher with a lifetime earned run average of 2.28.

Ohtani made his major league batting debut on March 29 when he went 1-for-5 as the Angels designated hitter in a loss to Oakland. After his pitching debut on April 1, Ohtani became the first major league player since 1988 to start as a pitcher and non-pitcher within the same season when Rick Rhoden did it for the New York Yankees.

The Angels staked Ohtani to an early lead in his first pitching start, when Oakland miscues on defense led to two runs in the top of the second inning. But in the bottom half of the inning, the Los Angeles starter ran into trouble.

After a strikeout to start the bottom half of the second, Ohtani gave up two sharply-hit singles. With two men on and A’s third baseman Matt Chapman at bat, Ohtani hung a slider down the middle of the plate on an 0-1 count. Chapman blasted the hanger for a three-run home run to deep left center field, giving up the lead.

Ohtani quickly settled down after giving up the home run, and didn’t allow another hit until the seventh inning of his next start.

The Angels came back in the fifth inning to score two runs to retake the lead, 4-3. After the home run to Chapman, Ohtani retired 14 out of the next 15 hitters he faced.

Los Angeles tacked on three more runs before the Angels right-hander gave way to his bullpen, setting Ohtani up for his first major league win.

“Obviously I’m very happy, satisfied with my outing,” Ohtani said via interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “I’m more happy the team got the victory.”

Ohtani showcased a fastball clocked in the high 90s all afternoon, touching 100 mph in the first and second innings. Although he struggled with locating his fastball at times, the velocity of his fastball seemed to make his slider and biting splitter even harder to pick up for Oakland hitters.

Angels catcher Martin Maldonado said he wasn’t worried with Ohtani’s fastball location “when you got a guy throwing 99, 98, 97.” Maldonado added, “The way he was throwing the ball today was amazing. He really attacked the hitters.”

All six of Ohtani’s strikeouts were swings and misses and he kept Oakland hitless in five out of the six innings he pitched.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia offered praise for Ohtani’s resilience after giving up the home run in the second inning. “Shohei has shown great poise in everything he’s done,” said Scioscia. “Major League hitters hit the ball. Outside of that one stretch of three hitters in the second inning, that’s about as well as you can pitch.”

As for Ohtani, he was already looking ahead. “More than feeling like I made it here, I felt like I was just starting,” Ohtani said. “I would like to work toward my next start.”

FIRST HOMER — Shohei Ohtani (R) hits his first home run off Josh Tomlin of the Cleveland Indians in his first major league at-bat in Anaheim, Calif. April 3. He would go on to hit homeruns in three consecutive games.
Kyodo News photo

A left-handed hitter, Ohtani then went on a tear in his next three games as the Angels designated hitter, slugging home runs in three consecutive games. One of his home runs was off last year’s American League Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians. In that three-game span, Ohtani hit safely in six of his 13 at-bats, driving in seven runs. More telling of his impact, the Angels have won five out of the six games in which Ohtani has started.

Ohtani is just the second Japanese-born player to homer in three straight major league games, following New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui who did it in 2004 and 2007.

With a small army of reporters and cameras following Ohtani’s every move, including dozens of members of the Japanese media, Scioscia was asked whether this reminded him of “Fernando Mania” in 1981. That year, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando

Valenzuela burst onto the scene to win both Rookie of the Year honors and the National League Cy Young award.

Scioscia downplayed his expectations for Ohtani. “I just expect the same out of him that we would out of any of our starting pitchers,” said Scioscia. “Just go out there and give us the chance to win.”

So far, Ohtani’s performance may not even be fully captured by comparing him to Valenzuela. Rather, his impact from the mound and at the plate can be more aptly described as “Ruthian.

In his second outing as a pitcher, Ohtani took a perfect game into the seventh inning with a devastating splitter that left Oakland hitters baffled. He retired the first 19 hitters he faced before Oakland shortstop Marcus Semien lined a 96-mph fastball into left field for the A’s first hit of the game.

After recording the last out of the seventh inning with his final strikeout, Ohtani pumped his fist and slapped his glove in excitement as he walked off the mound. The Anaheim crowd gave him a rousing standing ovation for his virtuoso performance.

“I knew it was a no-hitter, but I didn’t have the feeling like it was going to be a perfect game,” Ohtani said. “I figured they were going to get a hit sooner or later, so I just kept my mind on getting outs.” He ended up getting outs on 21 out of the 23 batters he faced.

Following his latest win, the two-way star was named the American League Player of the Week by Major League Baseball. At 23 years and 9 months old, Ohtani became the youngest Japanese-born player to receive the title in the majors.

It is the first time for a pitcher-hitter to be named player of the week since the award was introduced in 1975. Right-hander Hideo Nomo was the first Japanese-born player to receive the award in June 1995, the year he debuted in the majors with the Los Angeles Dodgers and was named the National League Rookie of the Year.

As a pitcher, Ohtani’s sporting a 2-0 record, 18Ks in 13 innings, and a 2.08 earned run average. As a hitter (at the conclusion of the April 10 game) he’s homered three times and knocked in seven runs to go with a gaudy slash line of .368/.400/.842. His efforts have led the Angels to a 9-3 record, tying them with the Houston Astros for first place in the American League west.

When asked if winning as a pitcher felt different as a batter, Ohtani said, “I’m happy with both, but more than anything I think it’s just good to win.”

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