Ohtani falters in return to the mound

OAKLAND, Calif. — With the return of Major League Baseball, Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani made his much-anticipated return to the mound July 26 in Oakland. Ohtani, a right-handed pitcher and left-handed hitter, made his 2020 pitching debut against the Athletics but failed to get out of the first inning and ultimately lost to Oakland, 6-4.

POUNDED ON THE MOUND — Los Angeles Angels catcher Jason Castro (front) talks to pitcher Shohei Ohtani against the Oakland Athletics July 26 in Oakland. Ohtani returned to the mound from Tommy John surgery but left without getting a single out in a five-run first.
Kyodo News photo

Ohtani had not pitched at all during the 2019 season to recover from Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his pitching elbow.

Although some rust was expected in Ohtani’s first pitching start in nearly two years, concerns over his physical and mental readiness were sky high after a disastrous outing in which he failed to retire a single A’s hitter.

Ohtani exited the game after facing only six hitters. His final line: zero innings pitched, five runs (all earned), three hits, three walks. The A’s knocked Ohtani out of the game after Oakland outfielder Robbie Grossman’s RBI single.

Despite the early hole, the Angels hung in and made it a close game. Right-handed pitcher Matt Andriese relieved Ohtani and went on to pitch 5.2 shutout innings. Los Angeles outfielder and reigning American League MVP Mike Trout did most of the offensive damage for the Halos, hitting a towering three-run homer in the third inning, and a sacrifice fly-RBI in the fifth. The sac fly put Los Angeles within one run of Oakland. But the Angels wouldn’t get any closer as Oakland tacked on another run on A’s catcher Sean Murphy’s solo homer in the sixth.

Ohtani struggled with his control and velocity. Of the 30 pitches Ohtani threw, only half were strikes.

Ohtani’s average fastball velocity was 96.7 mph in 2018. His fastest pitch that season was 101.1 mph on May 30 at Detroit. He also led Major League starters (minimum 10 games) with a 35.1 percent swing and miss rate in 2018, and recorded 57 of 63 (90.5 percent) strikeouts in 2018 on a swinging strike three.

In stark contrast on July 26, Ohtani’s fastball mostly registered in the low 90s against the A’s, averaging only 93 mph. He also didn’t come close to baffling hitters like he did in his rookie campaign in 2018.

“He just didn’t throw the ball very well,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said after the loss. “I can’t sit here and make excuses for him. I’m not gonna’ do that. It just wasn’t his day. The fastball wasn’t coming out, there was no deception in his pitches, and hitters will tell you that.”

During his postgame press conference with English-language reporters, Ohtani said through an interpreter that he wasn’t worried about his velocity and that he felt both mentally and physically ready. Maddon also said that Ohtani is healthy.

“I just have to get that feel for the game back,” Ohtani said. “Today I just felt like I was throwing the ball rather than pitching.”

Ohtani pitched in three intrasquad scrimmages at Angel Stadium before his 2020 debut. It was reported that Ohtani struggled with his control in all of those preseason games.

Although Maddon publicly expressed confidence in Ohtani’s readiness after his shaky preseason scrimmages, the Angels manager seemed less certain about Ohtani’s mental fitness after his regular season pitching debut. “This guy is as good as we all think he is. He’s just not comfortable getting back there yet,” Maddon said. “When you come off a severe injury, sometimes you have to fight yourself, those mental roadblocks, in order to get back to where you have been.”

When speaking with the Japanese media, Ohtani admitted that he felt nervous pitching in a regular season game after such a long layoff to recover from his injury. Ohtani assured, however, that his body feels fine physically and that he didn’t have the chance to feel tired because his outing was so short.

Ohtani seemed to confirm his manager’s assessment that he was struggling mentally, saying his mentality shifted during the game from doing his best to help the team win to “just trying to get one out.”

The last time that Ohtani pitched in a game was Sept. 2, 2018 in Houston. He did not pitch during the 2019 season, but appeared in 106 games for the Angels as a designated hitter, slugging 18 home runs with 62 RBI and a solid .286/.343/.505 slash line.

The July 26 start marked Ohtani’s third career game as a pitcher vs. Oakland. In his previous two pitching starts against the Athletics, he was 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA with 18 strikeouts against the A’s. One of the starts was on April 8, 2018 at Angel Stadium in which he carried a perfect game into the seventh inning. The other start was his Major League pitching debut, when he had electric stuff, retiring 14 of the final 15 batters he faced on his way to a victory.

With this start, Ohtani became just the third player in Major League history in the last 80 years to make starts as a pitcher and non-pitcher in multiple seasons.

Ohtani signed with the Angels as an international free agent Dec. 10, 2017.

He made his Major League debut as a designated hitter March 29, 2018 at Oakland prior to his first start as a pitcher April 1, 2018, also at Oakland Coliseum.

Ohtani became the first player in Major League history with more than 15 home runs (he had 18) and 50 pitching strikeouts in a season (he had 63).

His two-way impact in 2018 eventually earned him the American League Rookie of the Year Award.

Ohtani Is the fifth Japanese-born player to play for Angels, along with Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Hideki Matsui, Hisanori Takahashi and Junichi Tazawa.

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