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Shohei Ohtani arrives Sunday at the end of a tedious recovery, 21 months from scalpel to big-league mound, a trying experience that may have stripped 200 or more innings from the remarkable career he intends to build here.
On the bright side, he set an all-time record for hits and home runs by a pitcher rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery.
He has circled back to Oakland, where he took his first swing as a major leaguer and Los Angeles Angel, then three days later threw his first pitch, continuing the journey that began in his native Japan, where no one ever made him pick a side.
Ohtani turned 26 three weeks ago. He enters his third season here having accumulated 51 ⅔ innings, 715 at-bats (including five Friday night), a Rookie of the Year award and a truer sense of what the highest level of the game asks of him. More, it seems, what he asks of himself.
While he has not yet endured every inch of a regulation U.S. major league season the way he aspires to play them, and will not again in 2020, the coming two or three months is the challenge before him. The plan is to pitch him initially once a week — Sundays, for now — and employ him as a designated hitter Tuesday through Friday. The Angels chose Sundays because the schedule grants them three Mondays without games, days Ohtani likely would be resting from the previous day’s start anyway.
For all Ohtani offers — 11 strikeouts per nine innings as a pitcher (about what Max Scherzer and Chris Sale have done for their entire careers) and a home run every 18 at-bats as a batter (Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson) — he’s still a pitcher making his first start since elbow surgery, and he’s still a batter who hasn’t had 400 at-bats in a season, and he’s about to return to a job that requires him to be beyond proficient at both.
His first run at this, over two months and a week early in the 2018 season, just prior to a suboptimal elbow MRI, resulted in:
Nine starts, a 4-1 record, 3.10 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 49 ⅓ innings.
A .289 batting average and .907 OPS in 129 plate appearances over 34 games.
That guy, 23 years old, long and lean, shy, humble and as graceful as any athlete in the game, was unique to nearly anyone’s lifetime. Babe Ruth hadn’t thrown a pitch in 85 years. The two-way players between Ruth and Ohtani were mostly dabblers by comparison.
Two years later, Ohtani sat Saturday morning in front of a camera, his translator standing above him on his right. Ohtani has broadened in the chest and shoulders. He otherwise remains boyishly young in his appearance. Those who know him say he is relentlessly driven, reflected in a professional career that began in 2013, shortly after his high school graduation, and in his decision to leave Japan ahead of true free agency millions, and in the belief he can do this, and then in whatever — the victories and the failures — lies ahead.
If there is to be a pitcher with ace qualities and results, if there is to be a hitter who produces with the best in the game, and if that is to be possessed by a single player, then that is what Ohtani seems to expect of himself. Once, for two months and a week, he’d made it possible. Now there are 60 games, what amounts to a season, and after a 1-for-5 game batting third, behind Mike Trout, on Friday night, he will start on the mound Sunday against the Oakland A’s.
On the eve of that start, he was asked about returning to the mound and so returning to the ballplayer he envisions.
“Definitely not neutral,” he said. “It’s a little mix of everything. Some worry. Some excitement. Especially there’s going to be no fans, so that’s going to be weird too.
“It’s a little different than before my debut. At that time, I just wanted to give everything I got and see how my stuff fared against big leaguers. Now I’m more focused on seeing how much I got back to where I was before, pre-surgery.”
Joe Maddon has only just gotten to know Ohtani. They had some time in spring. They had a few weeks in July. In there somewhere, Maddon determined that Ohtani had a good soul. It’s a reasonable virtue.
“Smiles easily,” Maddon explained. “Is very respectful. I think he listens wonderfully. I don’t know this yet, but I believe, as you get to have him as a friend, he’s always there for you. He’s just got this really nice way about him. I think the word is respect. The way he respects others. We haven’t had in-depth conversations. He doesn’t speak English well enough, nor do I speak Japanese. [But], he’s a good soul. He’s such a great talent. I don’t think he’s ever going to lose his humility or his gratitude. I think he’s always going to carry those characteristics with him.”
He also has said that good isn’t enough for Ohtani. That Ohtani will only settle for great. Ohtani nodded and attempted to explain what “great” would look like at the end of 60 games, or 60 and whatever October might bring.
“Obviously,” he said, “numbers are important. But, as long as I get my work done and do what I need to do, I’m sure the numbers, the stats, will follow. I’m sure we’ll get a lot of wins as a team if I’m able to do my full potential. So we’ll see at the end of the year.”
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