Shohei Ohtani strikes out 11 as Angels defeat White Sox

Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani reacts after striking out Chicago White Sox's Josh Harrison to end the top of the fourth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani reacts after striking out Chicago White Sox's Josh Harrison to end the top of the fourth inning on Wednesday at Angel Stadium. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Shohei Ohtani’s presence on the mound almost certainly means something incredible will happen for the Angels. Through his 11-strikeout performance Wednesday, he delivered another dominant start for the team in need of all the good it can get.

Ohtani joined an elite group of pitchers, becoming just the third in Angels history to strike out 30 batters and not give up a run in three starts, per ESPN Stats & Information. The other two are Nolan Ryan and John Lackey. His scoreless streak reached 21 2/3 consecutive innings. All that on top of his continued brilliance at the plate, though he didn’t get a hit on this night in the Angels’ 4-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox to take two of three games in the series.

“No. 1 was to not give up the first run,” Ohtani said after the game. “Because my team got early runs, we were able to progress with a good flow. From there, the key was to hold on until we added more runs.

“I’ve never taken the mound thinking, ‘This is tough.’ Whatever the situation, what I do remains the same,” he added. “I always think I can’t let the other team score first.”

The White Sox elevated Ohtani’s pitch count early, making him work through 79 pitches before he was able to get strikeout No. 9 in the fifth inning. Still, he endured, blanking the White Sox through 52/3 innings, giving up five hits and one walk over 108 pitches, 74 of which were strikes.

In the first inning, White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson and first baseman Jose Abreu worked singles off Ohtani. But the traffic on the bases didn’t make it past second base as Ohtani got all three of his outs on swinging strikeouts.

He got through the second and third innings inducing easy outs and adding three more strikeouts to his total. The fourth inning was when he ran into trouble

The first batter of the inning, Luis Robert, hit a grounder down the third-base line. Tyler Wade made a diving stop but couldn’t beat Robert to the bag with his throw. Abreu got another single off Ohtani before he was able to get the first out of the inning. The second out, a strikeout by AJ Pollock, helped calm Ohtani, but he then walked Leury Garcia to load the bases. Ohtani made sure his next batter, Josh Harrison, would be his last of the fourth, and he delivered his eighth strikeout.

He cruised through the fifth inning before that pitch count started to weigh on him. He labored trying to get just two outs in the sixth, stepping off the mound and talking to catcher Max Stassi to get a few moments of rest between batters. When he finally got strikeout No. 11, he looked as if he knew it was all he had left.

He grabbed at his back toward the end of his outing but said that he was OK and wanting “to flip the switch and do my best the day after tomorrow.”

“I wanted to pitch through the sixth inning but they have a resilient lineup and my pitch count was a little high,” Ohtani said.

He walked off the mound and into the dugout to a standing ovation from the crowd of 27,612.

“He just continues to go out and ... takes games like this very seriously because he knows what’s on the line and he demonstrated it again,” interim manager Ray Montgomery said of Ohtani.

Ohtani took responsibility for his high pitch count.

“I think you could look at it like [the manager] was patient and let me face another batter,” Ohtani said. “It was something I did by letting my pitch count run up.”

Thanks to the top of the Angels’ order in the first inning, the team was also able to get out to an early 2-0 lead. Taylor Ward, who reached on a single, was driven home by Mike Trout’s double in the next at-bat. Ohtani worked a walk to reach base, then Jared Walsh’s grounder allowed Trout to score after a fielding error by Chicago starter Michael Kopech.

The Angels made it 4-0 on Luis Rengifo’s two-run home run in the sixth inning.

What are the odds?

The Angels’ season went so wrong so fast.

They rode high into May, flashing a 27-17 record with significant odds at making the playoffs. In 14 games, those odds went from abundant ( 77%, per FanGraphs) to unlikely ( 22%) by the last loss of that record slump.

Before Wednesday’s final game of a three-game series with the Chicago White Sox, the Angels’ odds at making the playoffs were at 15%, after going 9-10 since the losing streak ended.

At 36-41 before Wednesday and with a series against division leader Houston coming up, the more pressing question isn’t whether the Angels will make the playoffs. It’s whether they’ll even finish above .500.

OK, so maybe being a .500 team this season means landing a wild-card spot with the expanded playoffs, but that’s a different debate.

Technically, the Angels have the time to make up ground. Baseball’s season isn’t officially halfway over, but context is everything.

The Angels couldn’t win their series against the Kansas City Royals, who showed up to Angel Stadium a 23-42 team. They couldn’t win their second series of the season with the Seattle Mariners, an equally middling team — that the Angels are still paying the price for facing.

They won’t even have their full coaching staff back until the middle of their four-game series with the Baltimore Orioles next week, which means another seven games after Wednesday in which they’ll be short handed in that department.

The Angels were able to win the series against the White Sox, but if they can’t consistently beat the teams they’re statistically supposed to beat, then winning against the leaders in their division and league becomes a tall order.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.