The Ohtani experience is both exciting and uneasy

Shohei Ohtani’s 1.04 ERA through two starts this year belies the incredible angst that it’s taken to get there.

You know that, of course, if you watched Tuesday night’s Los Angeles Angels game — Ohtani’s first on the mound in over two weeks. The results showed a scoreless outing — kept short by design — that helped the Angels to a victory. But, babying a blister that had sidelined the pitching part of his diverse skill set since an electrifying April 4 season debut, Ohtani’s four-seam fastball velocity was down and he threw fewer of them, too. Only 37 of his 80 pitches were strikes. He walked six, including three in a row to load the bases in the first inning. He hit a batter, too. After the game, Ohtani rated his command “a zero out of 100,” via interpreter Ippei Mizuhara.

And you also know that if you’ve been paying attention to baseball since the captivating two-way talent came over from Japan ahead of the 2018 season. To vastly oversimplify things: Ohtani has been, with the exception of 2020, a great hitter and a tantalizingly disappointing pitcher, primarily because injury has limited his ability to throw and his opportunity to get into a rhythm.

The tantalizing part was evident Tuesday night, too. Leaning on the splitter, Ohtani worked out of every jam he created for himself, striking out seven in four innings of work.

His catcher, Kurt Suzuki, told reporters, “Command wasn’t as he would like. But when it was time to make pitches, he made pitches. That was kind of the whole theme of his outing was making pitches when he needed to.”

That is, always, the goal of anyone on the mound: Try to be good more than you are bad. Make your best pitches when the game is on the line. Get results first. Look good doing it if you can.

To dig down and say that some individual pitches were practically perfect while others spun out of control, to draw causal relationships between those individual pitches and the context that surrounds them, to see the storyline of an entire career play out in an April appearance is sort of pedantry. That can be true of any performance.

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 20: Shohei Ohtani #17 of the Los Angeles Angels warms up prior to the first inning of a game against the Texas Rangers at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on April 20, 2021 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Shohei Ohtani threw four innings of scoreless baseball against the Texas Rangers on Tuesday night. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

An underwater iceberg of work and narrative, of which we see only the tip, is behind every major league start. Sometimes, the outcome merits an examination of retrospective meaning that may have been there all along, left by the wayside if the box score was boring. Like when a hometown kid throws a franchise’s first no-hitter despite having seemed like an afterthought in an offseason of headliners. Or when a guy returns to the team that non-tendered him mere months ago and is nearly perfect. Or, you know, pretty much any postseason start.

People do this with their favorite player or their favorite team all the time. Emotionally invest in every outing, every throw. Whisper superstitious incantations of success that can’t be heard through the TV and wouldn’t matter if they could. Grimace at a ball in the dirt and fist pump at a timely strike. Wonder if a dip in velocity is a sign of a lingering ache or maybe a new one. Wonder what aging or an odd outing last time or a disruption in the schedule or the weather might mean for a game of centimeters that revolves around a single man doing something the human body is barely capable of.

With Ohtani, the story is already so heavy and heady coming into every start that it’s impossible to not look for signs of how it all might play out. I should say I’m speaking only for myself (but I don’t think I am) in admitting how badly I want him to be good — great, even! Or healthy enough to throw 100 pitches every five or six days, anyway.

Pitching well is inherently precarious and the people who do it consistently have only themselves to blame for making it seem easy. The truth is every outing belies the angst it took to get there, but with Ohtani, the stakes never feel that far from the action itself. The pure potential of his stuff, and the potential storylines as the first two-way star in a century, make every appearance feel the culmination of something hard-won, which it is, and every pitch part of something that could be historic.

Suzuki said that if Ohtani could master control of all his pitches that, “the sky’s the limit, obviously.”

“If he’s feeling pretty good that night with his command, there’s a chance to do something special every time he takes the ball on the mound. No-hitter. Perfect game. Shutout or whatnot. A lot of strikeouts.”

In some ways, that’s the point of pitching. But put it like that and how could you not be holding your breath?

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