Shohei Ohtani's strong pitching debut draws praise: 'I think you saw the talent'

Perhaps the only day this season that could be more awash in anticipation for the Angels than Thursday’s season opener was the nondescript road game on Easter Sunday that marked the pitching debut of heralded two-way star Shohei Ohtani.

OAKLAND, Calif. — Perhaps the only day this season that could be more awash in anticipation for the Angels than Thursday’s season opener was Easter Sunday's road game that marked the pitching debut of heralded two-way star Shohei Ohtani.

The “Babe Ruth of Japan,” Ohtani boasted a lengthy résumé that seemed to prove he could be the first power-hitting pitcher since the Babe: a career 2.52 ERA and .286 batting average over half a decade in Japan, a fastball that intermittently flashed 100 mph, a wipeout slider and splitter, a quick foot on the basepaths and a bat that consistently flirted with plus power.

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Though Ohtani’s .125 Cactus League average and 27.00 ERA may have been characteristic for a Japanese transplant forced to acclimate to a new culture, a new mound, and a new baseball, they cast an unwelcome shadow over his potential to make it as a legitimate two-way player in the big leagues.

On Sunday, however, the Angels weren’t looking for Babe Ruth. They just needed Ohtani to pitch.

'Excited and nervous'

Only 14,644 fans came out to watch Ohtani's debut Sunday, a little over a third of them sporting the Angels jerseys and caps that branded them as Southern California transplants and out-of-towners. By game time, a blush of red and white shirts filled the seats above the visitor’s dugout at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, pasteboard signs gently waving above the heads of excited fans. A young child straddled his father’s shoulders and clutched a miniature sign, on which paper cutouts of American and Japanese flags and a bright red “17” were artfully arranged. Others held aloft large prints of Ohtani’s team headshot; in place of his photograph, some stenciled his likeness in marker and pen. More remarkable still was the number of media clustered around the field and the dugout: an estimated 240 credentials had been issued to members of the Japanese media alone.

Still, the muted atmosphere of the Oakland Coliseum was a poor substitute for the cacophonous Sapporo Dome Ohtani left behind in Hokkaido. Bathed in a cool sunlight — still unseasonably warm by Bay Area standards — the crowd appeared tamer. A delighted eruption of cheers and whistles lasted only a few seconds when Ohtani emerged from the clubhouse to warm up on the field, the feeding frenzy of pregame autograph seekers replaced by dozens of smartphones held up to capture dozens of miniature Ohtanis swapping the ball with a backup catcher.

Perhaps the crowd had a calming effect on the young Angels pitcher; or, more likely, he was simply approaching his latest assignment with the laser-like focus that had preceded each opportunity before this one. If his pitching debut bred any nervous energy, it didn’t make its way into the ball itself.

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Instead, Ohtani delivered the sizzling power and professional polish that we associate with superstars-in-the-making. His first big-league pitch — a 96-mph fastball to Marcus Semien — found Martin Maldonado’s glove for a called strike. The high heat came later, with 99-mph fastballs that cut under the bats of Jed Lowrie and Matt Olson. Lowrie popped one high on a full count, where it was easily gloved by Maldonado in foul territory; and Olson swung hard to give Ohtani the first-inning pitching line every rookie dreams of: 13 pitches, two strikeouts, no baserunners.

He cruised into the second inning with another three-pitch strikeout to Khris Davis, but trouble found him on a high fastball to Matt Joyce, who slapped it into left field for the A’s first hit of the afternoon. Stephen Piscotty followed with a single to right and Matt Chapman punished a hanging slider with a home run over the left center fence.

Three straight hits and a fat, three-run homer would have been enough to rattle any pitcher’s cage, but Ohtani remained composed — outwardly, at least.

“[I was] excited and nervous,” Ohtani confessed after the game through his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, adding that he relied on Maldonado’s advice between innings to tweak his approach to hitters — especially after the three-run blast.

From the moment Chapman’s home run ball left the yard in the second inning, not a single batter reached via base hit. Matt Joyce was the last player to get on base after plucking a walk from a full count in the fourth; in the fifth and sixth innings, only Semien managed to draw a two-ball count. Ohtani shuffled through Oakland’s lineup a few times, inducing first-pitch groundouts and punctuating his efforts with several inning-ending strikeouts before a Khris Davis pop-up brought pitcher’s historic outing to its graceful conclusion in the sixth.

The final result? Six innings of three-hit, three-run, six-strikeout ball, 63 strikes in 92 pitches, a heater that reached 99 to 100 mph on 12 separate occasions — and a resurrected comparison to some of the finest players in the history of the sport. The Angels, meanwhile, closed off the remaining three innings of the game, allowing the A’s to creep up on a three-run deficit with with Piscotty’s last-minute RBI single in the ninth before shutting them down for the 7-4 win.

'He used everything'

It was exactly what the Angels — and Ohtani — had hoped for.

“Personally, I feel like I’m off to a good start. […] I’m satisfied with my outing,” the right-hander said, diplomatically adding: “I’m more happy the team got the victory.”

Ohtani represented the first Angels starting pitcher to record a quality start in his MLB debut since Sean O’Sullivan beat the Giants in 2009. He also became the first franchise player to record at least six strikeouts in his first major league outing since Kevin Gregg appeared on the scene in 2003. But most importantly, he’s the first player to begin the season as a non-pitcher and record a starting pitching appearance within the team’s first 10 games since Babe Ruth did it for the Red Sox in 1919.

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Scioscia wasn’t ready to pass any final judgments after one brilliant afternoon, though.

“I think you saw the talent,” he said. “I think you saw how he can put pitches together. I think you can see how he can get hitters out, not just with velocity but all the pitches [...] He used everything.

“Shohei showed great poise in everything he’s done: the way he’s practiced, the adjustments he’s made at the plate when he’s swinging the bat. I think that’s going to be one of his strengths moving on. That was what everybody talked about in Japan. This kid has been doing this at a very young age for a long time at a very high level of baseball, and I think [...] you saw some of [his poise] this afternoon.”

For now, he’ll let Ohtani carve his own place in history.