MLB’s Field of Dreams game in Dyersville, Iowa, on Thursday night, set the bar high for the dream individual matchup of the season. Some 1,600 miles away in Anaheim, Calif., far from any cornfield, the two top contenders for the American League MVP award, Shohei Ohtani and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., battled in their lone matchup of the season. It didn’t provide the late, fairy-tale dramatics of baseball’s other marquee event of the night, despite being located much closer to both Hollywood and Disneyland, where such stories are regularly told. But it did neatly further the MVP narrative in favor of Ohtani, a once-in-a-lifetime player who got the better of Guerrero to solidify his standing as the sport’s most talented superstar in a 6–3 Angels win.
The first inning was a microcosm of the AL MVP race. After Ohtani retired George Springer and Marcus Semien, Guerrero sneaked a single through the left side of the infield on the first pitch he saw, an 87-mph sinker. Victory! But it would be Guerrero’s most noteworthy accomplishment of the night, and it was not enough.
Ohtani cheerfully waved to his rival on first base, then made sure he was stranded there by inducing a flyout from Teoscar Hernández. The man they call “Shotime” then led off the bottom half of the frame by drilling a two-strike, 94-mph fastball from José Berríos to left center for a double, his MLB-leading 68th extra-base hit of the year. It was also his 20th extra-base hit at least 112 mph this season, five more than anyone else, per MLB.com’s Sarah Langs.
What Vlad did, Ohtani did better.
In the second inning, Ohtani worked a walk to extend the Angels' rally and came around to score on a two-run single by Jared Walsh, part of a four-run inning that kept the Blue Jays at arm’s length for the rest of the game. Guerrero made a crucial mistake in the build-up, dropping a potential over-the-shoulder catch off the bat of David Fletcher. Ohtani even got to hit a third time before Guerrero’s second plate appearance, drawing the crowd to its feet with a long flyout in the third inning.
When Toronto’s burly first baseman hit in the following frame with the Jays down 5–0 and a man on base, he squandered an opportunity to get his team back in it, going down swinging on a slider that painted the outside corner.
And despite the friendly demeanor Ohtani showed in the first inning after Guerrero’s hit, make no mistake—he wanted to come out on top here. He appeared to engage in a little friendly trash talk as the pair walked off the field at the end of the first. He took a massive cut on a 3–1 fastball in his second at bat, with the whiff drawing a disappointed-yet-impressed ooh from the hometown crowd. He let out a loud grunt on his full-count offering to Guerrero in the sixth inning, a 98-mph fastball just off the corner that Guerrero snubbed for a walk. Disappointed, Ohtani shook his head and appeared to curse.
“[Ohtani] is playful, and I mean that in the best possible way. He takes his craft as seriously as anybody. But the whole time he’s playing a game,” said Angels manager Joe Maddon in a postgame press conference, while comparing Ohtani's demeanor to that of Cal Ripken Jr., a man famous for loving baseball enough to never take a day off. “That’s the part that I really like about him a lot. And that’s what more athletes have to understand. If you’re able to do that, you can throw aside the negative, the next at bat or whatever, and enjoy what you’re doing.”
Ohtani did just that after Guerrero’s free pass, setting the Blue Jays down in order before practically dancing off the mound into the dugout after his final pitch of the evening.
Guerrero deserves not to be ignored here. The fastball he took for ball four was the sort of pitch most 22-year-olds wouldn’t have the plate discipline to let sail by. But he did, and it epitomized the sort of patient, powerful slugger he already is at such a young age.
But Thursday night was not his night. He struck out in his last at bat on some high heat from Angels closer Raisel Iglesias, brought in for a four-out save after Toronto got a man on while behind, 6–2.
Guerrero went 1-for-3 with a single, a walk and a strikeout. Ohtani went 1-for-3 with a double, a walk and a strikeout. Again, just a little bit better.
In the end, MLB’s 27-year-old star exited Thursday’s matchup as he entered it—the league leader in home runs, with 38. Guerrero held onto second place (35), and maintained his narrow lead over Ohtani in OPS, 1.023 to 1.017.
The statistics will change by the end of the season. But the general story line that played out Thursday night will probably remain the same. Guerrero and Ohtani are two of the best hitters alive. But Ohtani is one of the best pitchers alive, too.
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