We've reached that point in the baseball season that one might refer to as "the calm before the storm." With about a month left, all of the AL divisions have a team at the top with a very solid lead, while on both sides in the wild-card chase only a small handful of clubs remain who have any realistic hopes of advancing to the play-in games. It's too early to make the jump to focusing only on the postseason, but it's getting harder to ignore that more and more teams are taking the field without any incentive to win the games they play.
The Los Angeles Angels are one of these teams. Heading into Monday's action, their record stood at 64-67, a full 10.5 games back of the Boston Red Sox for the second wild card. On top of this typical Angels year, a couple of recent developments also seemed to nudge them towards hitting the fast-forward button on the rest of their series. For one, manager Joe Maddon contradicted an earlier statement from GM Perry Minasian by bringing up the possibility of the team shutting down Mike Trout for the year, due to the calf strain—original prognosis of six to eight weeks—that's had him out since May.
Additionally, Padres pitcher Ryan Weathers made himself Public Enemy No. 1 around these parts on Saturday when he hit poor, sweet, terrifying Shohei Ohtani with a pitch on the hand as the Angels stud was trying to swing.
Ohtani, despite the pain, stayed in the game and even stole a base after a walk in the fifth, but his pained body language was an unsettling reminder of the fragility of his greatness. As much as I want to make the case for the beauty of baseball as baseball and the entertainment value of games played even by a team that has no shot at the postseason, this scary moment made my brain question, briefly, "Aw, man, why are the Angels even playing out the string?" But, incredibly, Shohei quieted those doubts almost as soon as they popped up.
Maddon announced later that Ohtani would miss his scheduled start on Tuesday against the Yankees due to the injury, but he would continue to hit. And hit he did on Monday night. Facing a team that did have an incentive to win, Ohtani struck out in three-quarters of his at-bats. But in the fifth, with the score tied at five, he rose above his struggles to swing the only swing that anyone is going to remember. When his former teammate, Andrew Heaney, delivered him a breaking ball smack dab in the middle of the strike zone, he reared back and blasted it extremely high and way off into the distance, giving his team the lead in an eventual 8-7 Angels victory.
“The ball that Shohei hit, I’ve never seen a ball hit to that level up there,” Maddon said afterwards. “I heard it was 431 feet and I’m not into that stuff but, my goodness, it looked farther than that.”
The Angels have exactly 30 games left before their season is over. Bum hand and all, Ohtani still provides a reason to watch them.