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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Hoping to stay in the Shohei Ohtani business

Shohei Ohtani’s home run against the Mariners last week was his 40th of the season.

By Scott Miller

The day after slugging his 40th home run of the season — and leaving his pitching duties early because of a cramp in his right middle finger — Shohei Ohtani walked into the Los Angeles Angels clubhouse dressed, as always, in Southern California chic: flip-flops, navy shorts, black T-shirt and a backward black baseball cap.

Whether he expected to be here, that’s hard to say.

As the Angels came back to Anaheim for their first homestand after the Aug. 1 trading deadline, they were celebrating a successful trip to Detroit, Toronto and Atlanta that had revived hope in the team’s season. And more important, they returned with the face of the franchise still in tow.

Countless pundits had expected Ohtani, a free agent after this season, to be traded at the deadline, but nobody working at Angel Stadium seemed to think things would play out any other way than they did.

“We have a special player who is having a really unique, special year with a team that’s competitive,” general manager Perry Minasian said. “And for us not to give ourselves an opportunity to get better and go for it would have been, in my opinion, the wrong decision.”

Minasian added: “He’s somebody that we all love, somebody I love, and I hope he’s here for a long time.”

Whether Ohtani remains an Angel for two more months, or the rest of his career, is an open question. His free agency is expected to be among the wildest pursuits of a player in baseball history. Rather than bow out, the Angels kept him close while making a number of deadline moves in hopes of adding depth to their top-heavy club.

In adding starter Lucas Giolito, relievers Reynaldo López and Dominic Leone, first baseman-outfielder C.J. Cron and outfielder Randal Grichuk, the injury-decimated Angels, who stood three games back in the American League wild-card chase the morning of Aug. 1, believed they had strengthened themselves in their ongoing battle to make the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

The deadline moves also presented a good-faith gesture to Ohtani, whose words from two Septembers ago continue to echo loudly: He likes his team, loves its fans, but, above all, he just wants to win.

Outside the white lines, Ohtani, 29, remains the game’s greatest enigma. He doesn’t say much, and he offers fewer clues regarding his life outside the game. He takes questions only after he pitches, which is every six days or so. Even then, it is in the tunnel outside the Angels’ clubhouse — one lone man and his interpreter backed up against a concrete wall, no sign of the personality they show away from reporters, short answers, little depth.

Angels officials stand sentry as he speaks, ready to cut off the first part of the interview scrum to transition to the Japanese media portion. Then they remain poised to cut that off as well so Ohtani can escape back into the protective cocoon of the clubhouse and the pureness of the baseball to which he passionately and fully devotes his life.

When he was done talking after last Thursday’s heartbreaking 5-3 loss to the Seattle Mariners, in which the Angels had been two outs away from victory, Ohtani retreated quietly to the chair in front of his locker, doing what many young people do after work has separated them from their devices for hours: Phone in his left hand, he stared intently at the screen as a large ice bag encased his right elbow. Ippei Mizuhara, his interpreter, sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor next to him as they decompressed from another day in Shohei-land.

That night’s game had produced yet another viral moment in a career full of them. Ohtani left the game as a pitcher after only four innings and 59 pitches because of the cramp, but stayed in the game as a designated hitter and blasted an eighth-inning home run with an exit velocity of 107 mph.

“How do you do that?” Mark Gubicza, an Angels radio broadcaster and longtime pitcher, said. “It’s like watching Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Tiger Woods play baseball, all in one. He’s a freak. A cramp in your right hand and you still hit the ball 107 mph?”

In the midst of another staggering season, Ohtani was leading the majors in homers (40) through Monday, and was also leading in total bases (282), extra-base hits (66) and on-base plus slugging percentage (1.082). He was tied for the major league lead in triples (seven).

On the mound, he was leading the majors in lowest opponents’ batting average (.186). A second Most Valuable Player Award seems like a foregone conclusion.

His importance to the Angels is off the charts: He was leading the team, by a wide margin, in plate appearances (501) and innings pitched (124-2/3).

“He is mentally as strong as anyone I’ve ever been around,” manager Phil Nevin said.

By retaining him at the deadline, the Angels clung to what they feel is an important piece of rope tethering the two sides together. Rivals will line up on the free-agent market — the universal belief is that the Los Angeles Dodgers are retrenching this summer so they can throw all available resources at Ohtani this winter — but the Angels have every intention of extending what has been a great relationship, even if it has not yet resulted in team success.

Nobody understands the overall value of Ohtani more than the Angels. Club officials feel his impact daily as they watch the throng of fans entering Angel Stadium. They see it in the lines outside the team store as Ohtani merchandise flies off the shelves, including his jerseys, which are the second most popular in baseball behind the Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr. And visible reminders are all around the stadium via advertisements for tires (Yokohama), probiotic beverages (Yakult), imaging products (Konica Minolta) and felines (Churu, “Japan’s No. 1 cat treat”).

The Angels had won 10 of 13 entering August, but after a pair of losses to Atlanta, a four-game sweep by the Mariners and a brutal late-inning collapse against San Francisco on Monday, the Angels had fallen to eight games back in the wild-card race. Ohtani had muscle cramps in three games over an eight-game stretch and guessed the culprit was “fatigue.” He had played in 112 of the Angels’ 114 games, and he had been the starting pitcher in 21 of them — this after he had led Japan to the gold medal in the World Baseball Classic this spring.

As is his custom, he addressed neither the trading deadline nor his future with the Angels after Thursday’s start. He spoke only of the game he had just played.

“Ideally, I wish I could have gone 100 pitches and saved the bullpen,” he said ruefully.

Still, he had reached base in all four plate appearances, swiped second to put himself in position to score the team’s first run and then smashed another epic homer, cramp or no cramp.

It was all part of the continuing, maddening pattern. The superlative Ohtani plays out of this world, and the flawed Angels remain stuck on the ground. As they hope and wait — and try to get better — his teammates have a front-row seat to a performance that has no true precedent in MLB history.

“While I’m smiling ear to ear and looking left and right, everyone else was like, ‘Yeah, it’s just what he does,’” Giolito, the newcomer, said of watching Ohtani hit a homer with a cramped hand. “I think everyone else is kind of used to it by now.”

He added, “But for me, it’s pretty special to watch and be on this side of it rather than on the other end.”

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