The curiosity of Shohei Ohtani continues to grow after phenomenal start

·MLB columnist

ANAHEIM, Calif. – It’s becoming something. Maybe not a mania. Maybe not even a day, yet. But something. A spectacle. A curiosity. A hope. A reason to wipe out half a paycheck for a Sunday afternoon on which the draw is 100 mph on the black, 68 mph from the sky, 88 mph that – poof – disappears.

If not for that, then another day, for the 450-foot home run, 112-mph off the bat, elegant but for the cool and easy violence, almost sleepy except for the explosion at the end.

In the shadow of the behemoth up north, for a franchise working on a decade of a lot of Mike Trout and not much else, a reasonably full ballpark leaned into two-strike pitches, dragged its finger over the new jerseys in the team store, sang his name, mourned a baserunner in the seventh (the first), and carried him from the field.

At the end of a week in which he homered, homered and homered again here, Shohei Ohtani on Sunday afternoon got around to his specialty, which, so far, is to torture the Oakland A’s. He pitched Sunday. Amid the Little Leaguers, thumping music and fireworks. In the syrupy bog of expectations. With the assuredness that comes with being 23, in a game that speaks of – honors, even – failure, except it’s never come for you.

And now a town believes, which is great and, whoa, maybe a little scary, because home runs in every game followed by a seven-inning, 12-strikeout, one-hitter is probably not the norm, probably not the thing you should be promising. Except the pitches keep coming and you keep swinging, and the batters keep coming and you keep sending them back, and this is what 11 days in the big leagues look like for Shohei Ohtani:

Shohei Ohtani is starting to become something in Anaheim. (AP)
Shohei Ohtani is starting to become something in Anaheim. (AP)

.389 batting average, three home runs, seven RBIs, 1.310 OPS

2-0 record, 2.08 ERA, 13 innings, 18 strikeouts, two walks, four hits

5 days off

So, yeah, it’s becoming something, unless it already is something, him breathing life into the notion the presumed impossible has at least a chance. When 11 days turns into 30. When a month turns into two, three and six. When the A’s become the Houston Astros, the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers. When morning comes and the night before is heavy in his joints, and the oh-for-four has become oh-for-eight, and threatens more, and there’s a bullpen to be thrown and batting practice to be taken, and some left-handed beast is on the mound, waiting. Will it still have a chance then?

“Especially with how my spring training went, I wasn’t really imagining it being this good, to be honest,” Ohtani said after his start. “But, I feel better and I feel like I’m getting more used to it, more and more each day. It’s just the first week. Everything went well. I’m pretty sure there will be a wall somewhere down the road. Once I hit that wall, that’s when I’ll need to start working harder and figure out how to get past that wall.”

He had, maybe an hour before, struck out the last of 12 A’s hitters, on a split-fingered fastball. It’d required seven innings for those 12 strikeouts, 23 hitters in all. One of them – Marcus Semien, an out into the seventh inning – reached on a hit. Ohtani had been perfect until then, and hardly just perfect in the usual sense, but perfect in the they-never-had-a-chance sense. The fastball that arrived at 96 mph in the first inning was, by the sixth and seventh, regularly at 99 and 100. The split-fingered fastball was, even by the standards of a dotted hyper-speed fastball, devious. He threw a curveball that tickled the eyebrows of an entire stadium, strike one to Matt Joyce, the A’s leadoff hitter, in the fourth inning. In the distance, the A’s driver started the bus, or could’ve.

Stoic, earnest, Ohtani threw 10 pitches in the fourth, one of them his first 100-mph fastball of the afternoon. He threw 13 in the fifth, when he struck out the Nos. 4, 5 and 6 batters for the A’s. Another 12 pitches in the sixth, with another strikeout.

“I was conscious of the no-hitter, but I really wasn’t thinking of the perfect game,” Ohtani said. “I figured they’d get a hit sooner or later.”

He may have been alone in that, including both dugouts. But, so far, that’s been an Ohtani trait. Like a guest in your home, he wouldn’t mention the cobwebs in the corners of the ceilings. He’d put up with the dog, even if he were allergic. Before he bats, he touches the brim of his helmet and bows – it’s subtle – to the umpire and catcher. He did the same Sunday from the mound. In conversations with reporters, he speaks softly, and then only in orchestrated groups. His translator speaks even softer. He speaks only a few words, as though saving you the hassle of too many. Though, clearly, this serves him well. The fewer the words, the fewer the chances for misinterpretation. Also, the fewer chances to really know him. And less time spent with strangers and their questions.

And more time for the impossible.

For the splitter catcher Martin Maldonado put on par with any of the wipeout pitches he’s ever caught or tried to hit. For the swing that, so far, has worked. For the career that has inched into the second week of his first big-league season. For the fans three and four deep on the foul line, dugout to bullpen, screaming as he strides past before his start.

At the end for him Sunday, when there were two runners on base, the only two he’d allow, and two were out in the seventh inning, Ohtani would have one more pitch to throw. He chased a 99-mph fastball with a splitter. Maldonado raised his mitt, the ball inside. The splitter was his 34th, the swing and miss on that pitch alone his 16th. In a rare release, Ohtani punched the air, shook his shoulders, let it all out.

“I wanted that strikeout,” he said. “And I got it.”

He smiled.

It’s becoming something now.

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