Hernández: Shohei Ohtani's Dodgers debut feels like a breath of fresh air

Shohei Ohtani #17 of the Los Angeles Dodgers takes the field prior to the 2024 Seoul Series game

Shohei Ohtani was in a good mood.

He collected a couple of singles on Wednesday night in his Dodgers debut, including one against countryman Yu Darvish. He stole a base. He drove in the final run of a four-run eighth inning that reversed a one-run deficit and sent his team on its way to a 5-2 opening-day victory over the San Diego Padres at Gocheok Sky Dome.

When Ohtani was approached in the Dodgers clubhouse, a team official said he wasn’t talking. Ohtani told the official he didn’t mind. He placed his arm around the man and told him in English, “We’ll do this together.”

Ohtani laughed.

“I think a team that can come back to win at the end like this is a strong team,” he said in Japanese.

Read more: Dodgers catch a break with Jake Cronenworth's glove, rally for opening-day win vs. Padres

He’d spent the previous six years playing for an Angels team that was known for losing games like this. He still hasn’t played in the postseason.

October baseball once felt like a distant goal for him. Suddenly, after just one game with his new team, he had to sense how close it was.

“When you look at the lineup, there's a feeling that any part of it can produce runs, and I personally find that very encouraging,” he said.

Ohtani sounded encouraged by how the Dodgers won on a day when they weren’t at their best.

“There were situations in which we could have scored more and more,” he said.

The Dodgers were limited to one run in the first seven innings, and that one run was scored by Teoscar Hernández, who reached base on an error.

Ohtani pointed to how he stepped into the batter’s box in the first and fifth innings with Mookie Betts on first base. In both instances, Ohtani grounded into forceouts.

Still, the Dodgers exhausted Darvish and forced him to depart the game after 3⅔ innings. They didn’t score an earned run against Darvish, but ran up his pitch count to 72. They were relentless.

Ohtani had never previously faced Darvish, whom he replaced as the signature player on the Nippon-Ham Fighters of Nippon Professional Baseball.

In his second at-bat against Darvish, in the third inning, Ohtani lined a high fastball to right field for a single.

“I wanted to acknowledge him, of course, but there wasn't time because of the pitch clock,” Ohtani said.

Ohtani remained deferential to Darvish, who is eight years his senior.

“He threw some wonderful pitches and worked me into difficult counts both times, so I think they were uncomfortable at-bats for me,” he said. “I think it was good that I was somehow able to get a hit.”

Ohtani followed his single off Darvish with his first steal of the season. He worked on improving his running form in spring training with the idea of becoming more of a threat on the bases.

His form at the plate was a marked improvement from the exhibition games the Dodgers played against South Korean teams on Sunday and Monday. Ohtani was a combined 0 for 5 in those games.

“My body was a little tight,” he said. “I felt uncomfortable in my stance. I think my feel for the zone was off because of that. I received treatment yesterday, reset and rested. I felt good today.”

Earlier in the at-bat in which he singled against Darvish, Ohtani hit a foul ball that registered an exit velocity of 119.2 mph — harder than any fair ball he’s ever hit in the major leagues.

“Sometimes with hitters, one swing gets you back,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I really feel that one swing where he pulled it in the air foul, he really took a good swing and I think that bled into that at-bat where he lined a ball into right field for a hit and had another big base hit later in the game.”

That single later in the game drove in Gavin Lux and extended the Dodgers’ lead to 5-2. However, that hit was followed by a baserunning gaffe, as Ohtani misread a drive to center field by Freddie Freeman. Thinking the ball would clear the head of right fielder Fernando Tatis Jr., Ohtani rounded second base. When Tatis caught the ball, Ohtani didn’t retag the bag on his way back to first base and was ruled out.

Ohtani giggled when asked about the play.

“That's completely my mistake,” he said. “In my mind, I didn't run past the base, but they ruled that I did, so that’s something I’d like to acknowledge and pledge to improve.”

Read more: Hernández: These Dodgers could be historic, or another October disaster in the making

Asked about his emotions entering the contest, Ohtani said, “There was some nervousness, but I'm more nervous when I pitch. That doesn't change. Compared to [when I pitch], I was able to play more relaxed.”

Ohtani is recovering from his second Tommy John operation and isn’t expected to pitch this season.

When Ohtani was finished taking questions in front of his locker, a reporter from a South Korean streaming service asked him if he could deliver a message to the people of her country.

Ohtani obliged.

He said a couple of words in Korean, waved to the camera and smiled.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.