ANAHEIM, Calif. – The game is simple. One man, seated in a chair across the room, gets five shots at the pool-toy hoop athletic-taped to the end table. About a 15-footer. Over the couch. With a grapefruit-sized basketball. Watch the ceiling, it’s low, and the reason for the chair. Then his opponent gets five shots.
The bet is push-ups, 25 per shot. Make one, the other guy makes two, you drop and give him 25. Goes like that. With an audience. And abuse administered in three languages, maybe four, it all kind of runs together.
Which is where we found Shohei Ohtani the other afternoon, mano-a-hando in the Los Angeles Angels clubhouse with Albert Pujols, the lights low and the stakes high, a practice shot boinging wildly off the rim, off the wall and under the coffee table.
“Hey, man, what happened?” Pujols shouted, in English, for the sake of Ohtani’s translator, Ippei Mizuhara, who turned to Ohtani, who muttered something and shrugged at Ippei, who said finally, “Missed a shot.”
Pujols howled and Ohtani grinned.
“Practice,” Mizuhara said.
“Prac-tice?” Pujols shrieked, and Allen Iverson lives. “Prac-tice?!”
“Ask him how many I get to practice,” Pujols said.
After consultation with Ohtani, Mizuhara responded, “A hundred,” and the look on Ohtani’s face was, “Or a thousand, whatever, it won’t matter.”
Pujols, who has the best mean mug in the game, mustered his gamer. Ohtani glared back in what could be described as an angry kitten staring down a grizzly.
“Here we go!” from the gallery.
Pujols was first in The Chair. Swished the first. Missed the second.
“Diablo,” he muttered.
Missed the next three.
Ohtani needed one to tie, two to win, five to have Pujols doing push-ups until the national anthem. He eased into The Chair, rearranged a wisp of hair, received the basketball and let it go with a wave of his wrist.
It all seemed so … normal.
The experiment is batting second lately, behind Mike Trout, and hitting .342. It is 3-1 as a starting pitcher, and the Angels are 5-1 in its six starts. Its ERA is 3.58.
They’d asked, “Could it be done?” Everyone had. And a quarter through the season, it is getting done. He is doing it. He wobbled briefly over a twisted ankle and nursed for a few days a blistered finger, and otherwise Ohtani has stood behind Trout and with Andrelton Simmons and Justin Upton as the club’s most impactful players.
He has performed on both sides of the ball. The roster construction has not suffered. He has not trembled before the relentless schedule, or panicked before the deeper lineups, or flinched before the fastballs meant to bury him. No, instead, for 42 games – and not yet 162, of course – he has played and conducted himself with elegance and proficiency, as it seemed he would almost from the start.
More, perhaps, is the ease at which he slips from one side of the job to the other, just playing the game, enduring the life, starting a given afternoon in the bullpen, continuing it in a batting cage, beginning an evening in a lineup contending in the AL West, finishing it against a pitcher he’s never seen before.
As though none of it was so difficult at all. As though it, the experiment that launched a thousand opinions, has become … routine.
“I think all the people involved in his continuing development are comfortable with the amount of communication and how to direct that communication,” general manager Billy Eppler said. “So, it’s becoming familiar to people.
“Before, it would be unique for the hitting coach and the pitching coach to talk about the same player. Now it’s common. Or becoming familiar.”
So, too, for the performance staff, the trainers, along with the coaches, the manager, the general manager.
“We’ve established a process,” he said.
A 23-year-old with a triple-digit fastball, with upper-tank power, feeds the process. The process offers routine. The routine plays it all to the minute, from the last pitch the night before to the first the next evening, all leading to the three hours everyone gets to see.
“Obviously,” pitching coach Charles Nagy said, “his talent is what drives everything.”
A good portion of Ohtani’s schedule is based on a schedule that worked for him in Japan, that made him about the best hitter and pitcher in that league. The rest is the human part, the part where Ohtani sorts the fastballs from the sliders, the good hitters from the vulnerable, and sets the game where it’s always been for him. And he’s good at the game.
“I don’t think ‘surprised’ is the word,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “But I think he’s made some terrific adjustments that have helped him to do the things we’re doing. … There’s a lot on his plate and he’s doing very well.”
To that end, Eppler said, “He’s an extremely driven human being. And obsessed about being great. Obsessed with greatness.”
For the moment, Ohtani settled for a little accuracy from 15 feet. He followed the shot. Nothing but net. Four shots to beat the great Pujols. The afternoon before, he’d owed Pujols 75 push-ups, which Pujols generously offered to divide between Ohtani and his translator.
Pujols stood behind the basket, leaning with Ohtani’s second shot. That, too, was perfect. Ohtani stood, shouted something Mizuhara chose not to translate, and raised his arms to the ceiling. The room celebrated with him, then coaxed him back into The Chair, where the possibility for 75 more push-ups remained.
Ohtani missed them all. Some would say suspiciously.
So it was that on this afternoon, gaining on the summer he’d perhaps always dreamed for himself, Shohei Ohtani nodded each time Albert Pujols rose from the floor, 25 times in all. Pujols stood and flexed his biceps, Ohtani bowed at the effort, and they laughed together.
“I’ll get you tomorrow,” Pujols told him.
No translation required.
Just another day. A normal day.
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