The Angels ultimately put aside their “workload management” of Shohei Ohtani for Sunday’s series finale in the Bronx and gave everyone on two continents a chance to finally see what they wanted to see.
Well, almost. What everyone was hoping for, of course, was the much-anticipated pitching duel between the two former Japanese stars, Ohtani and Masahiro Tanaka, staged in the backyard of the spurned Yankees, who didn’t even get an interview with the two-way phenom last offseason.
Instead, we got the next-best thing. The Angels, who are obsessive about not overworking the 23-year-old rookie, used Ohtani as their DH and granted us — along with the dozens of Japanese media in attendance — the possibility of an interesting consolation prize.
From that standpoint, we’d have to rank what went down in the Bronx as less entertaining than “Avengers: Infinity War” but more watchable than the NBA’s Draft Lottery. It had the principal antagonists in place, doing what they do, but the day turned out to be lopsided in Tanaka’s favor, and that was fine with the Yankees in their 3-1 victory.
For those up on their NPB history, this first U.S. meeting between Tanaka and Ohtani didn’t look much different from their clashes back in Japan. During the 2013 season, Ohtani was 0-for-11 with six strikeouts against Tanaka. Five years later, Tanaka, 29, got the best of him again, whiffing Ohtani twice, with a five-pitch walk sandwiched in between.
“Obviously, he’s not an easy out,” Tanaka said through his interpreter. “He has a good eye and he’s very selective. But I was able to get two outs off of him.”
Leading up to Sunday, Tanaka and Ohtani could have pulled a muscle, straining as they did to downplay the matchup. For as much as the media stoked the hype, these two have been living in a baseball-crazed fishbowl for most of their lives, which explains their reluctance to make waves.
That left us to glorify some of the memorable snapshots, starting with Ohtani’s artillery blasts in batting practice but finishing with Tanaka, who owned the first round by besting him on Sunday.
After falling behind 3-and-1, Tanaka came back to strike out Ohtani in the first inning, getting him to swing through an 86-mph slider that didn’t have the bend he was trying for. In the sixth, Tanaka threw him a nasty 89-mph splitter that dived down and away from the flailing Ohtani.
Afterward, Tanaka agreed that splitter was one of the very best of his 104 pitches, and from what we’ve come to know about him, it wasn’t surprising. Tanaka tends to thrive when thrust into the most dramatic moments.
As for Ohtani, that’s more difficult to decipher. Clearly, this was not just another day at the office. But he’s had so much to absorb since signing with the Angels, and so many new experiences to tackle, that facing Tanaka probably was just another blurry episode along the bewildering road of this frenetic rookie season.
The Angels spared him from taking the mound this weekend at Yankee Stadium, but hitting — or at least trying to — was plenty challenging on its own. Ohtani was booed loudly, then cheered for his futility, by crowds of 40,000-plus every time he stepped to the plate by fans who now revile him for turning down their beloved Yankees. Not only did the Yankees take two of three, but Ohtani went hitless (0-for-9) with four walks and five strikeouts during the weekend.
“I don’t feel like I put too much pressure on myself any day, not just this time around,” Ohtani said through his interpreter. “I didn’t get any hits this time, but I was able to draw some walks. I think that’s a positive thing to take out of this series.”
Aaron Boone suggested that the Yankees did a great job of executing their plan for Ohtani, which he described as “staying away from his slug zone . . . and the danger spots.”
There has been talk that the Angels purposely kept Ohtani from pitching in the Bronx so the Yankees wouldn’t face him before a potential playoff matchup, but that’s a long way off. For now, however, they got the upper hand.
“If they have something on me, I don’t know about that,” Ohtani said. “I’m not worried about it.”
And if we do get that next time, in the playoffs, that’s the next overhyped thing to look forward to.