Enjoy those days while you can, the days when the air at Angel Stadium is filled with magical possibility as Shohei Ohtani does double duty on pitching mound and plate.
Days like Sunday, when he netted nine and handed the American League Central Division leaders the Minnesota Twins just two, in a six-inning performance that was stellar in every way but his own. And that’s not counting his only first-inning hit and the deliberate walk he made in the fifth inning in the Angels’ 4-2 win.
With Ohtani’s contract expiring after this season, and with him being able to request and get not just the moon but maybe a little galaxy as a free agent, there may not be many opportunities in Anaheim to marvel at the performances he downplayed on Sunday His teammates admitted they feel history hovering over them when it’s his turn in the rotation.
“Every time,” said left fielder Mickey Moniak, whose two-run double in the seventh inning on Sunday gave the Angels a 3-1 lead. “It’s no secret, he’s one of the most extraordinary, if not the most extraordinary, players in baseball, and every time he goes to the mound he might just pull off a seven-shutout [innings]Get 10 strikeouts and three hits, or who knows what will happen?
“But I think it’s definitely something special to be able to play behind him and I’ll be able to talk about that one day when I’m old and in the rocking chair.”
Old age is still a long way off for Encinitas native Moniak, who turned 25 earlier this month. But it could be so long before another Ohtani shows up.
Had the Angels built a successful team around Ohtani and Mike Trout, the club managers not only spent big bucks, but spent it well on quality pitching and a better bullpen and in other key areas, perhaps it wouldn’t be so inevitable that Ohtani would leave after this season. He wants to win. The Angels haven’t made the postseason since 2014, four years before he made his major league debut. Sunshine and proximity to Disneyland probably aren’t attractive enough for Ohtani to give up his competitive spirit and decide to stay with a losing team.
On Sunday, he was diplomatic as always when asked how this year’s Angels (25-23) differed from the team that went 73-89 last season and finished a hopeless 33 games behind division champion Houston.
“There aren’t many losses that we don’t have a chance of winning, so I think that’s for the best. We play hard to the end and we don’t give up,” he told Japanese reporters. “I think it’s because of the good atmosphere. I’ve said this before, but we lost [Saturday] and had a lot of chances to win.”
Ohtani’s performance on Sunday gave them a chance to win, although he didn’t make the decision. He reduced the batting average of his already best major league opponent to .142 and ranks third at .90 in strikeouts and fourth in WHIP (walks and hits per pitched inning). He’s 5-1 in 10 starts, but he’s given up a run in two of those non-decisions, and he didn’t give up a run in his first start on March 30 against Oakland.
He has a plan against Minnesota, he said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. He was out with his cutter more often than on previous launches because he had a good feel for it. Ditto for his sweeper, which he and catcher Chad Wallach adjusted to make both feel comfortable. It will take some time for him and Wallach to get on the same page with this pitch, “so I think it should keep getting better in the future,” said Ohtani.
His performance, though not historic, was an impressive turnaround from his previous four starts, in which he had given up 17 earned runs in 25 innings for a 6.12 earned run average. His ERA after Sunday was 3.05. Manager Phil Nevin said he wasn’t worried about Ohtani during this difficult period.
“I think if you look around the league, if you will, a lot of aces got into little trouble when we got into May. They’ve had some hiccups,” Nevin said. “Shohei is no different. He is human. Looking at the board I think it’s around 3 [in ERA]. He kept us in the games. He’s won five and we’ve won most of the games he’s refereed, so no, that’s not a concern at all.”
Meanwhile, every appearance by Ohtani radiates the special resonance that he’s likely to be one of his last in an Angels uniform.
“Every time he’s on the field, there’s a chance something special will happen, to be honest,” Wallach said. “It shows how good he is as a player.”
Enjoy him as an angel while you still can.