The main event of the weekend will not come off as scheduled. However, the spectacle and intrigue have remained.
The planned Sunday pitching matchup between the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka and Angels phenom Shohei Ohtani — and all the buzz here and in their native Japan — won’t be center stage because Los Angeles is pushing the 23-year-old’s start back. Still, all eyes are on the throwback two-way star every time he stands in the Stadium batter’s box.
Ohtani was a curiosity for baseball fans when he decided to bring his game to North America this season. He was one of the best pitchers and hitters in Japanese professional baseball, and nearly every team — especially the Yankees — wanted to sign him. He has become the most fascinating player in the game, stunningly successful in whatever he does.
He is 4-1 on the mound with a 3.35 ERA and a fastball that touches 100 mph in a wide-ranging repertoire. And he is batting .297 with six homers, 19 RBIs and a .936 OPS in 29 games (he doesn’t pitch and hit in the same game and gets days off before and after he pitches). His presence alongside two-time MVP Mike Trout, who set career highs Saturday with five hits and 11 total bases in Los Angeles’ 11-4 win over the Yankees — makes the Angels a must-see attraction.
“It’s been unbelievable,” said Trout, who went 5-for-5 with three doubles and a home run. “I know as a hitter, it’s tough to do just one thing. And he’s doing well at both. It’s pretty impressive.”
About the only thing missing is the head-to-head matchup against Tanaka. Conspiracy theorists who believe the Angels don’t want one are having a field day with it.
Ohtani didn’t pitch when the Yankees played in Anaheim a month ago and didn’t hit against Tanaka after turning an ankle the night before. Angels manager Mike Scioscia said Friday that moving Ohtani’s start was managing his workload “because there’s no track record for someone doing [this] in the major leagues” and suggested he might not pitch again until next weekend. But he threw a bullpen session Saturday, and Scioscia said he will pitch in Detroit in the Angels’ next series.
Ohtani could hit against Tanaka as the DH on Sunday, but Scioscia wouldn’t commit to it.
“Personally I was looking forward to it, not just pitching against Tanaka but pitching at Yankee Stadium, such a stadium with history,” Ohtani said through an interpreter. “But it is what it is. I am not going to pitch on that day so I have to turn the page and focus on my next start and my next at-bats.”
Ohtani stood in against Aroldis Chapman in the most-watched at-bat of the Yankees’ 2-1 win Friday night. With the tying run in scoring position, the lefthanded-hitting Ohtani’s bid for a go-ahead homer to leftfield sliced foul. Chapman, one of the few pitchers who throws harder than Ohtani, got him to ground out on the next pitch.
“I was unable to come through and his pitches were really fast, really powerful,” Ohtani said. “Some of the contact I made I thought was pretty good contact — I thought it would stay fair, but it didn’t.”
Ohtani is a riveting study, and that is aside from the striking results he gets on the mound and at the plate. When he first emerges from the dugout for his pregame work, he bows to the field. According to members of the media who follow the Angels, Ohtani doesn’t like it when dirt gets on the plate during batting practice and will halt it to brush the dirt away. The spectacle of watching him at batting practice has come to rival that of the Yankees’ Aaron Judge around the majors. He and Gold Glove catcher Martin Maldonado confer on the mound in Spanish — learned from Latin-American teammates in Japan — rather than English.
Maldonado describes Ohtani as “a kid who is really dedicated to the game,” one who thrives on studying both opponents and himself. He works scouting reports hard before he pitches. He makes adjustments at the plate, such as dropping the leg kick from his stride for a toe tap at the suggestion of hitting coach Eric Hinske. “Making that change — altering your swing — is tough and it shows what a great athlete he is,” Justin Upton said.
But what might impress the Angels most is how quickly Ohtani adjusted to playing in North America.
Spring training in Japan is not the serious production it is in MLB but, whatever attitude he had about it, his time in Arizona was nothing short of an eyesore. He batted .125 with no extra-base hits in spring training games and allowed nine runs in 2 2⁄3 innings in two appearances.
Yet when the regular season started, he was in top form. He hit .389 with three home runs and seven RBIs in his first four games as the DH. He was the winning pitcher in his first two starts, allowing three runs in 13 innings, including seven innings of one-hit scoreless ball against Oakland in his second game.
“You drop a 23-year-old kid in a new country, a new system, a new style of spring training, a new country, [with] no friends? I’d [stink], too,” Upton said. “But I think he was just getting used to everything . . . To play this well this early, that’s an impressive feat. This is a tough league to get used to . . . When he does figure out the league and get used to being over here, I think he is going to get even better.”
Ohtani does not take questions about why, among the 28 teams that vied for him, he chose the Angels. He also doesn’t explain why he ruled teams out. Despite a strong history with Japanese players such as Hideki Matsui and Tanaka and a presentation that reportedly included scouting reports in Japanese, the Yankees quickly were ruled out. Ohtani interviewed five West Coast teams, the Rangers and the Cubs before going with the Angels.
Though he didn’t choose to make it his second home, Ohtani has been savoring his first taste of Yankee Stadium.
“This field has a lot of history,” he said. “Anyone that plays baseball would like to play here one day. [It’s] exciting for me.”
TALE OF THE TAPE
Mike Trout CategoryShohei Ohtani
6-2, 235 Height, Weight6-4, 230
Ohtani pitching4-1 record, 40.1 IP, 3.35 ERA