In the span of two hours, the alluring, generational talent of Shohei Ohtani was on full display.
Pitching and hitting in the same game for the first time since joining Major League Baseball, Ohtani wasted no time showing why his arrival in the U.S. three years ago was met with so much hype. The 26-year-old touched 100 miles per hour with his fastball three times in a hitless top of the first inning. Then, batting second in the bottom of the first, Ohtani ambushed the first pitch he saw and deposited it well into the right field pavilion seats.
Ohtani ended up going 1-for-3 at the plate and pitching 4 2/3 innings, allowing three runs (one earned) on two hits and five walks with seven strikeouts. In the process, he threw a pitch harder than any other starting pitcher has this season, and hit a home run harder than any other hitter. Quite simply, the previous sentence details an athletic feat that seemed impossible for most of the past century or so, and the fact that Ohtani pulled this off on the same night—and with a national audience tuned in—represents the most exciting development the game has seen in years.
This is the type of player many envisioned when Ohtani officially signed with the Angels in December 2017. It's more or less what we saw for the first 10 weeks of the 2018 season, when Ohtani put up a 4-1 record and 3.10 ERA in nine pitching starts while batting .289/.372/.535 with six home runs in 129 plate appearances. He has not been fully healthy since, leaving the baseball world to wonder whether this grand experiment would even be attempted again.
The comparisons between Ohtani and Babe Ruth are both unrealistically lofty and obvious. As a rookie in 2018, Ohtani became the first player since Ruth in 1919 to pitch 50 innings and hit 15 home runs in the same season. If the Angels have their way and Ohtani stays healthy, he'd become the first player since Ruth (also in 1919) to have at least 400 at-bats and throw 100 innings in the same year.
Ruth is perhaps the most iconic athlete in American sports history, and Ohtani won't come anywhere near equaling his status there. That he's attempting to pull off a feat not accomplished in over a century, though, means MLB has a global star on its hands that's incomparable to anything the league has had to offer in quite some time. You can bet this won't be the last time Sunday Night Baseball opts to make a visit to Anaheim this season.
Ohtani has flashed brilliance frequently enough that talent is no longer a question; the biggest uncertainty remains health. He exited Sunday's outing in an erratic fifth inning that ended when he was toppled over in a collision at home plate. The Angels said Ohtani was not pulled because of injury, and that he was "fine" after only experiencing general soreness.
For the Angels, Ohtani's sustained health and success is paramount to ending their six-year playoff drought. The benefits for the game at large would be twofold—fans would get to see Mike Trout, the greatest player of his generation, and Ohtani, a once-in-a-century unicorn, finally compete in the postseason.
Ohtani's outing on the mound was just the latest in what was an overall encouraging opening weekend for the pitching-starved Angels. Los Angeles won three out of four against the upstart White Sox, getting promising pitching starts from Dylan Bundy and Alex Cobb in the other two wins as well. The bullpen mostly pitched well (despite a blown save by Raisel Iglesias on Sunday)—a reassuring development after the team led the majors in blown saves a year ago.
After the Angels took extreme caution in crafting a regimented approach to Ohtani's routine during his rookie season—he only pitched on Sundays and never hit when he pitched, or on the days before or after his pitching starts—manager Joe Maddon has pledged to do away with all the guard rails this season. The plan is to take a more day-by-day approach and let how Ohtani's feeling dictate how much he rests, with the goal of getting him on the field as often as physically possible.
The result might mean a relatively clean bill of health for the two-way star. It will also cause Angels fans to hold their collective breaths with every pitch thrown and swing taken.
The 2021 season is a mere four days old, and we're a long way away from considering Ohtani's two-way efforts a complete success. But, if only for a night, the baseball world caught a glimpse at what could be. If we're lucky, it won't be the last.
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