Let Us Have Ohtani
10:34 AM EDT on April 5, 2021
I am not really sure to whom the appeal in this headline is directed at. The vengeful baseball gods? Joe Maddon? Whoever is responsible for scheduling national TV games? All I know is that it is delivered with all of my heart. Please, please let this season belong to Shohei Ohtani.
Making his first start of the season Sunday night, Ohtani became the first player since 1903 to both start a game on the mound and bat in the second spot in the order. That Ohtani, now in his fourth season as an MLB player, is still doing things that haven't been done on a baseball field in over 100 years speaks both to his unique combination of talents and to the maddening fits and starts that have thus far defined his career in America. The rush that came from watching those first few weeks of the 2018 season, when Ohtani blitzed the league with dozens of strikeouts and booming home runs as a rookie, wore off a long time ago. Major surgeries, both on the pitching elbow and knee, tend to suck the wind out of anyone's sails.
But last night felt like something of a return to those brief, golden days. Not only did Ohtani kick ass on the mound, he blessed us with what could very well go down as the home run of the season.
And then he got right back on the hill and continued tormenting one of the most stacked lineups in the American League. Ohtani allowed two hits and struck out seven in 4.2 innings, and he should have walked off the mound while pumping his fist after dramatically punching his way out of a jam in the fifth, had his catcher not totally whiffed on what would have been the inning-ending strikeout, thus creating this awful mess:
Put the goofy ending to Ohtani's night out of your head for a moment (it looks like he's going to be fine, thank God), and just think about what you saw in the preceding innings. Now think about how incredible it would be to finally, at long last, see Ohtani hit and pitch like that for a full season. Do we not deserve it? After enduring the last long, awful year and gritting our way through a shortened, shambolic season of plague baseball, are we not owed something spectacular? What better way to pump some life back into the game than for Ohtani to make 20–25 starts, accrue 500 at-bats, and finally seize the title of Coolest Baseball Player In The Damn Universe?
One gets the sense that Ohtani wants this just as much as the rest of us do. He spent spring training crushing baseballs like a man trying to strike some fear into his opponents, and now he's throwing harder than he ever has before—his fastball touched 100 mph eight times last night. And then there was the screaming fist pump that he unleashed after striking out Luis Robert to end the fourth inning.
A guy who can do all the things Ohtani can do deserves to be the center of the baseball universe. The fact that he isn't already, that he hasn't had a season that really means anything yet, feels like a travesty of some kind. All of us, Ohtani included, have waited patiently to see him become something more than just a tantalizing talent.
This feels like the season that transformation could finally happen. There was a lot of talk during last night's broadcast about how the Angels want Ohtani to get back to just being a baseball player. Joe Maddon seems inclined to help usher that process along. Not only did he start Ohtani on the mound and leave him in the lineup one day after Ohtani served as the team's DH—Ohtani never hit the day before a start during his rookie year—he also trusted Ohtani to pitch his way out of that hairy situation in the fifth inning. Max Stassi's inability to catch the dang ball should not distract anyone from the fact that Ohtani rose to the challenge beautifully.
Taken as a whole, Ohtani's game—from the 451-foot homer to the ever-increasing velocity to the bearing down through high-leverage at-bats—felt like a message delivered to the rest of the league: The gloves are off. Let it be the year of Ohtani.
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