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OC Register: Alexander: It’s still Shohei Time in Anaheim – even more so

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ANAHEIM — We learned this much on Opening Night at Angel Stadium on Thursday: Shohei Ohtani not only remains more than worth the price of admission, but the rule especially created for him might have been the smartest thing Major League Baseball has done in a long time.

Ohtani, on a short leash as the vast majority of starting pitchers figure to be coming out of a shortened spring training, got the first two outs in the fifth inning and threw 80 pitches before being removed as a pitcher, in the Angels’ 3-1 loss to the Houston Astros. He struck out nine, allowed four hits, and his three punchouts of Jose Altuve were wildly popular in a place where the Astros’ transgressions of 2017 have not been forgotten or forgiven.

(Come to think of it, is there any place outside of metropolitan Houston where those transgressions haven’t been forgotten or forgiven?)

But this is a new frontier, even for a guy who is redefining what can be done on a baseball field. He’s literally forcing them to rewrite the rules.

After he was done on the mound, Manager Joe Maddon said he verified that Ohtani still felt like hitting, which he did, and which he could under the new rule that essentially separates the pitcher and DH spots, effectively allowing Ohtani to remain in the game as a hitter.

And in his final at-bat of the night, he brought the crowd to its feet and almost brought his team back, just getting under a Hector Neris splitter and winding up with an inning-ending fly ball to right rather than a game-tying two-run homer, erasing a margin created when new reliever Ryan Tepera surrendered back-to-back homers to Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez in the top of the eighth.

Ohtani remains a singular phenomenon, and the idea that Game 1 also featured the first regular-season implementation of the rule designed and named for him led to a question that has never been asked of a major league ballplayer: How do you do the necessary post-outing maintenance for your arm when you still have to hit?

“It doesn’t bug me that much,” he said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “By my last at-bat, I almost forgot I’d pitched that day.”

Of course, he also said that the choice whether to continue to hit was really no choice at all: “I want to stay to the end of the game and get that run that I gave up back,” he said, and never mind that the Angels had already made up for the run he’d allowed on Bregman’s single in the third.

It is the phenomenon of something no one else has tried, and the anticipation of what it might produce, that makes this such a unique moment in baseball history. And so what if at the end of the night he had an 0-1 pitching record and an .000 batting average? Numbers don’t always do the situation justice.

Part of the reason Ohtani was able to produce an MVP season in 2021 was Maddon’s decision to let Shohei determine much of his workload, given how he felt at a particular time. That’s why the manager asked if he felt like hitting Thursday night, probably knowing full well that Ohtani wasn’t going to say no.

An indication that things are different in 2022?

On most occasions last season Ohtani’s velocity would build over the course of a game until it got to the 99-100 mph range. His first pitch Thursday night to Altuve, according to the Baseball Savant website: 99.8 mph. His third one: 99.2. Either he was pumped by the excitement of Opening Night or by the way SoCal fans greeted Altuve – and no, they weren’t chanting “Altu-u-u-u-u-ve.”

“It’s going to be a long season, so I don’t know how fatigue is going to play into it,” Ohtani said. “But I’ll try to pick my spots.”

One difference between Ohtani of 2021 and Ohtani of 2022, Maddon said, is that as last season went on he got better command of his fastball.

“That’s what I think the big difference is,” Maddon said. “And you saw the (radar) gun tonight – a lot at 97 and 98. In the past, the early part of the game would be lower numbers until he needed it. And so right now, even when it’s not needed, he’s still doing those things.

“His slider was good, (and) he threw some really good curveballs. He hung a couple splits. I think the Bregman hit might have been a hanging split that hurt him, which normally doesn’t occur. But you know, the way he goes about it, he’s in the moment, he’s under control, on the mound and at the plate. What he did last year, obviously, that kind of experience should bolster your self-confidence, I would imagine.

“He looks very confident to me right now.”

Maybe when you’ve already confounded the baseball world, it’s easier to do so again. And there are still those in baseball who are convinced that at some point Ohtani will have to choose between hitting or pitching. Those might be the people who will help provide the motivation for his encore.

He has few doubters in Anaheim. The opening night crowd of 44,723 not only roared for him, but they even greeted his interpreter’s pre-game introduction with a roar. Ippei got louder cheers than all but Mike Trout and Ohtani himself.

“He tried to play it off as really cool,” Ohtani said jokingly – with Ippei interpreting, of course, and give him credit for playing it straight.

Then, speaking for himself, Mizuhara added, “I’m very thankful.”

We should all be thankful that this show will be in our midst all summer.


@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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