TEMPE, Ariz. — The long-awaited debut in a major league uniform of Shohei Ohtani, nicknamed the “Babe Ruth of Japan” because of his skills as both a pitcher and a batter in that nation, might have been less than what was imagined but perhaps was what should have been expected.
Ohtani, who signed with the Los Angeles Angels in December — forgoing a chance to join the Yankees — was the starting pitcher in Saturday’s Cactus League game against the Milwaukee Brewers and worked 1 1⁄3 innings. He threw 31 pitches, gave up two hits and two runs (one unearned), struck out one, walked one and threw a wild pitch. One of the hits was a double, the other a home run.
“I think I’m taking the right steps,” he said of a performance that helped draw 6,019 of the curious to Diablo Stadium on an afternoon when the high temperature reached only 57 degrees. “It’s still too early to tell.”
The problem? “I didn’t throw my slider too well,” he said after the Angels’ 6-5 victory. “It wasn’t working when I warmed up.’’
In Japan, unlike the majors, pitchers can throw on the sideline during games. “Because our offense was on the field a long time in the first,” he said, “I got cold before I went out to pitch in the second.”
The first batter he faced that inning, Keon Broxton, hit a 1-and-1 pitch over the fence and onto the grass berm in leftfield.
When told one of the Brewers said his fastball was up, Ohtani responded, “I can’t really say.”
Ohtani, 23, who throws righthanded and bats lefthanded, played five seasons for the Nippon Ham Fighters and was an MVP in the Nippon Professional League. His fastball has been clocked at 102 mph, he swings a powerful bat, and every team in the majors showed interest in him.
In his five years with the Fighters, he went 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP and 624 strikeouts in 543 innings. He had a .332/.403/.540 slash line in 2017 and hit 48 home runs in five seasons. On Thursday, he hit a ball an estimated 450 feet over the centerfield fence.
With a reputation that had been raised to near-mythic proportions, Ohtani announced after being posted that he wanted to join a small-city team in the United States — and then signed with the Angels, who are in a metropolitan area of maybe 12 million.
The Angels, already with a star in two-time MVP Mike Trout, have had to make special arrangements in how the media access Ohtani because of the three dozen Japanese writers at their spring training facility. Interviews with him are held in a tent beyond the leftfield fence of the ballpark with an interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara. Out-of-shape journalists are forced to walk and jog a couple hundred yards.
Ohtani has been cooperative but hasn’t been particularly enlightening. Not that Angels fans care. They are loading up on Ohtani paraphernalia. The first rack inside the door of the team’s spring shop is almost entirely jerseys with his number 17 and name, at $134.99 apiece.
His teammates say they are delighted to have him despite all of the attention — actually, because of all the attention.
“It might make us feel more relevant,” pitcher Matt Shoemaker told the Los Angeles Times. “As a West Coast team, we don’t get that much media. This might bring a little bit of an edge to guys, in a good way.”
Ohtani could get his first chance to bat in a game when the Angels play the San Diego Padres on Monday.
The health of often-injured Albert Pujols, 38, will have an effect on Ohtani’s plans to get to the plate as a batter. If Pujols can return to first base, Ohtani can be the designated hitter — a spot Pujols has held — at least a few days a week.
But on Saturday, it was all about Ohtani the pitcher.
“He has that ability to change speeds and spin the ball,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “He showed some real good signs this afternoon.’’
Shohei Ohatani’s Spring debut for the Angels:
2 hits (2B, HR)
2 runs (1 unearned)
1 wild pitch