Pitching and batting leadoff? Angels' Shohei Ohtani makes it look easy

Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani (17) throws against the Oakland Athletics.
Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani throws against the Oakland Athletics on March 5. Ohtani pitched and hit in the same game for the first time in his Angels career on Sunday. (Matt York / Associated Press)

Shohei Ohtani needed only 30 seconds in the dugout, trading his batting helmet and hitting gloves for a pitcher’s glove and fitted red cap.

Pitching and hitting in the same game for the first time in his Angels career, Ohtani took the mound for the bottom of the first already covered in dirt stains after hitting a single in the top of the inning.

As he loosened up his arm, more than 15 minutes removed from his pregame warm-up tosses, a San Diego Padres hype video played on the Peoria Stadium scoreboard. An accompanying song echoed around the ballpark, repeating the same lyric over and over.

“That’s how you change the game.”

Changing the game is precisely what Ohtani hopes to do this season. His legend reborn this spring, the promise of his two-way potential re-emerging with every towering home run and triple-digit fastball, Ohtani’s latest fabled milestone unfolded Sunday.

As the Angels leadoff hitter, he had two hits and a walk.

As the Angels starting pitcher, he had five strikeouts in a one-run, four-inning outing, topping out at 101.9 mph with his fastball.

In the last 105 years of Major League Baseball, no player has batted first and pitched multiple innings as the starter in a regular season game. And while Ohtani did it in an exhibition game Sunday, he made it look easy nonetheless, continuing a spring training tear that has broadened the expectations of what might be possible for him in 2021.

"I'm very excited to show what I can do,” Ohtani said. “That’s why I came here back in 2018. I’m sure I’ve disappointed a lot of people the last couple years by being hurt and not being able to show that, but I want to try my best to be able to show everyone what I’m capable of.”

Sunday was Ohtani’s most impressive spring game yet. Against former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, Ohtani extended his Cactus League hitting streak to nine games and improved his batting average to .636. Against the Padres’ potent lineup, he gave up only two hits and twice retired the side in order. Not even superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. reached base against him, striking out in his first at-bat and popping out in the other.

Asked if he’d be comfortable hitting and pitching in the same game during the regular season, Ohtani said through his interpreter that he “would love to” do it.

“If I could get run support for myself, that will give me extra confidence on the mound to be more aggressive,” Ohtani added.

Manager Joe Maddon said the game was a trial run to keep their options with Ohtani open. He reiterated that as the season progresses, Ohtani’s usage will depend upon how he’s feeling, not a predetermined schedule for his playing time.

“It’s all about health and keeping him out there,” Maddon said. “But you’re seeing this elite level of hitting and pitching.”

It’s been a total reversal from last season, when Ohtani struggled at the plate and was inconsistent in two starts pitching — his first outings since a 2018 Tommy John surgery — before a forearm injury forced him to be shut down on the mound.

Coaching Ohtani for the first time, Maddon recognized the raw talent in both roles, but worried about inconsistencies in Ohtani’s arm stroke and swing mechanics. Maddon even thought Ohtani, who finished the shortened season batting .190, might need to “focus on one then come back to the other … to just get his feet firmly planted and regain his confidence.”

But this spring, Ohtani has changed Maddon’s thinking. It’s not just that he has cleared the batter’s eye at Tempe Diablo Stadium twice, or that he has regained elite velocity with his fastball. Maddon said his confidence was cemented after watching Ohtani’s rigorous workouts in the offseason — the first of Ohtani’s MLB career when he was completely healthy — and his bullpen and batting practice sessions this spring.

“Last year I saw him hit a couple bombs, but I was still like, ‘Hmmm,’” Maddon said. “There were always these at-bats that really were concerning. And as a pitcher, I don’t even know if I ever saw his arm work in the manner that it is right now with any kind of consistency. That’s what my optimism is based on, how his body’s working right now. It’s completely different than what I saw last year.”

Shohei Ohtani celebrates after hitting a solo home run against the Cincinnati Reds on March 15.
Shohei Ohtani celebrates after hitting a solo home run against the Cincinnati Reds on March 15. (Matt York / Associated Press)

And after their first season together was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, Maddon said his communication with Ohtani — and his interpreter Ippei Mizuhara — has been much better this spring.

“He’s taking everything into consideration, just like we’ve spoken about,” Maddon said. “I believe he’s smart enough to keep big picture in mind too. He’s not only looking at right now, but he’s looking beyond.”

That’s how Sunday’s two-way appearance came to be. Maddon and Ohtani discussed the idea the last couple of weeks. It wasn’t a new concept to Ohtani, who did it regularly in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, but something he wanted to be prepared for.

He didn’t play Thursday, Friday or Saturday after batting in the three games before that. He planned out the warm up-to-hitting-to-pitching transition presented by being the road team. And he didn’t begin the day with a set number of at-bats, instead being left in the lineup for as long as he remained on the mound.

Ohtani said the dual roles didn’t cause him extra fatigue and that he was pleased with his ability to get strikeouts in critical spots.

His opposing pitcher, Snell, offered a more blunt assessment.

“Dude’s a freak,” said Snell, who was one of Ohtani’s five strikeout victims. “He throws 100, and he can swing. He’s good at going the other way. He’s a great player on both ends, which is insanely hard to do. For him to pitch and hit and have an idea at both sides and be elite at both, that’s very impressive. You just hope to see him on the field and doing his thing as much as he can.”

That’s the challenge facing the Angels and Ohtani: trying to protect his health while also maximizing his production.

How will they do it?

“I honestly believe it’s just about listening to him,” Maddon said. “We’ve had the conversation, he and I. And he’s done this before. The big thing seems to be with him, when he needs rest, and I need him to be absolutely honest with me about that. And he has already. He doesn’t hold back regarding that. That’s what I need. That’s what we need.”

And if they can figure out the right formula, strike the right balance between hitting and pitching — and perhaps, even both in the same game — this spring has provided tantalizing flashes of what the future could hold for the 26-year-old sensation.

“We forget how young he still is,” general manager Perry Minasian said. “This is a young player who’s still coming into his own. He’s had an exciting spring and I expect that to carry over into the season.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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