Image credit: (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM—It’s going to be tough to top this.
For Shohei Ohtani. For the 44,742 fans that packed into Angel Stadium to witness his first home start. For the sportswriters who came from around the globe to cover the momentous event.
Then again, Ohtani is forcing everyone to re-evaluate what can or can’t be topped. He’s doing things that haven’t been done for nearly 100 years—things deemed too difficult in this modern era of Major League Baseball, too impossible against the best players in the world.
An ace on the mound and a middle-of-the-order power hitter? It was too good to be true.
But it’s happening, for all the baseball world to see.
Ohtani won his first major league start and then homered in three consecutive games, becoming the first person to win a game on the mound and homer as a non-pitcher in his next since (you guessed it) Babe Ruth.
What he did on Sunday topped all of it. Maybe. With Ohtani’s feats, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to gauge which is more incredible than the other.
Ohtani made his home pitching debut at Angel Stadium and squashed the Oakland Athletics into submission. He retired the first 19 batters he faced, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning before Marcus Semien singled. He struck out 10 of his first 15 batters, and punctuated the fifth, sixth and seventh innings with strikeouts. He pumped 96-99 mph fastballs and plummeting 84-88 mph splitters all afternoon, flummoxing A’s hitters top-to-bottom and generating swings that belonged on a blooper reel.
The final result was seven shutout innings, one hit allowed, zero walks and 12 strikeouts. It was a performance that had the crowd buzzing and the Angels dugout humming en route to a 6-1 victory, one that no one hesitated to sum up hyperbolically.
“That’s as good a game as you can ever see pitched,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
The historical precedents are few. Ohtani became the first player with two wins and three home runs in a team’s first 10 games of a season since Jim Shaw for the 1919 Washington Senators. His 12 strikeouts tied an American League record for a pitcher in one of the first two games of his career, joining the Angels’ Tim Fortugno in 1992 and Elmer Myers of the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics.
In the last seven days, Ohtani went 2-0, 2.08 with 18 strikeouts and two walks in 13 innings, and hit .462 (6-for-14) with three home runs and seven RBIs.
“Especially how my spring training went, I wasn’t really imagining it would be this good right away, to be honest,” Ohtani said through a translator. “But I feel better every day. I feel like I’m getting used to things more and more each day.”
In storybook form, Ohtani struck out the side the first inning of his home debut. He got Matt Joyce lunging badly over a splitter to lead off. He pumped a 96-mph fastball past Semien to get the A’s shortstop swinging. Then he uncorked another splitter to finish off Jed Lowrie, sending Oakland’s second baseman twisting to the ground on one knee as he swung over it.
The sellout crowd was electrified. The tone was set. It was Ohtani’s day, there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
“He was amazing,” Angels catcher Martin Maldonado said. “It was nasty.”
The swings and misses weren’t close. Smolinski followed Lowrie’s lead in falling to the ground. Olson and Piscotty, two established, dangerous hitters, were left flailing like Little Leaguers seeing their first curveball.
“With the amount of movement that split has and how hard he’s able to throw it, it’s a tough pitch to lay off when his 100 mph fastball is keeping you honest,” Olson said. “It was working well, he was mixing it up well today. His command was getting those chases.”
Ohtani notched six of his first seven strikeouts with his splitter, then changed it up his third time through the A’s order. His next three strikeouts all came on fastballs, all 99 mph, blown past Semien, Davis and Olson.
Ohtani wasn’t done using his best weapon. After erasing Davis and Olson with heaters to start the fifth, he wiped out Matt Chapman on a splitter to end it. His final two strikeouts, of Smolinski to end the sixth and Olson to end the seventh, came on splitters as well.
“He was throwing it in locations to where it looked hittable and it would just bottom out of the zone,” Joyce said. “And when the pitcher is doing that, he’s got 98 with ride and you’re trying to get ready for 98 and then he throws a splitter that starts in the zone and bottoms out, you’re going to have a tough day. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care how good you are. Pitchers making his pitches like that and hitting those spots, you gotta tip your cap.”
Ohtani was eight outs away from a perfect game when Semien singled through the left side with one out in the seventh. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. A walk to Lowrie and a short mound meeting followed. Then Ohtani went back to work.
With two on and one out after the base hit and walk, Ohtani induced a soft chopper back to the mound from Khris Davis, and finished his day by striking out Olson for a third time.
“I wasn’t sure if that was my last batter or not, but I had two runners in scoring position and I wanted to keep a clean zero on the board,” Ohtani said. “One hit would be two runs, it’s a huge difference. I wanted that strikeout.”
“He made incredible pitches to the last two guys,” Maldonado said. “I was most impressed with the ability he had to calm down after that big hit, after the walk. To get those guys was something.”
It was a smashing home pitching debut in what has been a smashing introduction to the majors. Through the first week and a half of the season, Ohtani sits in the top five in the majors in both home runs and strikeouts.
Of course, it’s a feat accomplished in a very small sample size, and a level of performance Ohtani knows will be difficult to continue moving forward.
“It’s just the first week, I’m pretty sure I’m going to hit a wall somewhere down the road,” Ohtani said. “Once I hit the wall, that’s when I’ll need to start working hard to try and figure out how to get past it.”
It’s a reasonable assumption. All rookies hit a wall at some point.
Then again, all long held assumptions now suddenly seem specious. Ohtani, after all, is shattering one of the game’s biggest, the separation between pitcher and hitter that has been a bedrock of the majors for almost a century.
At this point, nothing feels impossible.
“He’s that kind of rare talent,” Angels second baseman Zack Cozart said. “To be able to do both ways, it’s fun to watch.”