It took less than two innings for Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani to surpass another career achievement by Babe Ruth. Yet behind the plate for this milestone was an unfamiliar face.
In the Angels’ 3-1 loss to the Houston Astros on Tuesday night at Angel Stadium, Ohtani struck out the 502nd batter of his career, besting the baseball legend Ruth’s total as a pitcher. Ohtani fanned Mauricio Dubón in the first inning and Jeremy Peña in the second to reach 502. But it wasn’t Max Stassi, Logan O’Hoppe, Chad Wallach or Matt Thaiss catching for the Angels.
It was Chris Okey, a 28-year-old who was drafted in 2016 by the Cincinnati Reds and had spent all but seven games of his professional career in the minor leagues. On Tuesday, Okey played his eighth big league game.
Okey started this year at triple-A Salt Lake. The Angels selected his contract Tuesday, needing another catcher after Wallach was put on the seven-day injured list because of concussion symptoms. Manager Phil Nevin said his reason for not starting Thaiss, who has never caught Ohtani, was that Thaiss started the previous two games. Thaiss did play as a late-game substitute Tuesday.
Okey already had a locker in the Angels’ clubhouse Monday as part of the taxi squad and found out Tuesday morning that he would be catching Ohtani.
“I was excited,” Okey said. “Shohei Ohtani, best player in the game. I wanted to take care of him the best way I could. His name speaks for itself. It was definitely an eye opener.”
The pair managed adequately considering the brief introductions. Before the game, Okey met with Ohtani to learn his pitch shapes and other intricacies. Wallach and O’Hoppe also tried to help Okey get up to speed on what to expect when catching Ohtani.
“It’s always hard when it’s your first time because I feel like you need to develop, sometimes, a relationship with your catcher,” Ohtani said in Japanese via interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “I’m sure it was hard for him too and not just me. I’m not sure if I’m going to be pitching to him going forward, but I’d like to keep on communicating with him, get to know him better.”
The Angels’ catcher situation has been in flux because of the injuries the group has endured.
Stassi (family emergency/hip strain) and O’Hoppe (torn labrum surgery) are not returning anytime soon. Wallach’s IL stint is retroactive to Sunday, meaning he could be back by Ohtani’s next start Monday in Baltimore.
On Tuesday, Ohtani became the player with the most pitching strikeouts among players to also hit at least 100 career home runs. The two-way star has 134 career home runs.
Ruth’s career lasted 22 years, though he pitched during just 10 seasons. He finished with 501 career pitching strikeouts, according to the Elias Sports Bureau — the statistical entity that Major League Baseball follows — and 714 home runs. (Different stats websites cite Ruth as having just 488 career strikeouts.) Ohtani now has 507 career strikeouts in just 395 2/3 innings.
“It’s a great thing that I could pass [Ruth], but I felt like I could’ve struck out more hitters today,” Ohtani said. “It’s still a long season. It’s still early. I just want to stay healthy and end the season healthy.”
Ohtani struck out seven over seven innings, giving up three runs and six hits and walking two. He yielded a two-run home run to Martín Maldonado in the fifth inning.
“He’s really good. I mean, he’s human,” Nevin said of Ohtani. “And I think he made, really, one bad pitch to a guy who seems to really do a lot of damage against us.”
Ohtani produced another quality start, but he received little offensive support. The Angels’ run came on rookie shortstop Zach Neto’s first major league home run in the third inning.
“Off the bat, I knew I hit it pretty good,” Neto said. “I felt really good in the box today, even though I went one for three.”
At the plate, Ohtani went 0 for 3 but did reach base in the sixth inning on catcher’s interference.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.