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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Leaning on teammates, Ohtani is around more, on and off basepaths

Shohei Ohtani batting in a spring training game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Seattle Mariners in Glendale, Ariz., on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts praised Ohtani for his “willingness on the margins to get better.” (Adam Riding/The New York Times)

By Andy McCullough / The Athletic

Shohei Ohtani pulled up a chair inside the visitors clubhouse at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. and gazed up at a television. For a moment he was alone, undisturbed by the rest of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a solitary figure watching the Arizona Diamondbacks play the St. Louis Cardinals.

Then first-base coach Clayton McCullough approached to chat. Will Ireton, the team’s manager of performance operations who doubles as Ohtani’s interpreter, came over. A member of the media relations staff stopped by.

A little more than a month has passed since the Dodgers fired Ippei Mizuhara, Ohtani’s longtime friend and interpreter, after Ohtani accused Mizuhara of stealing money from him to fund gambling debts. Dodgers officials have described Ohtani as more approachable since the dismissal of Mizuhara, who operated as a gatekeeper for the two-way star. Mizuhara turned himself in two weeks ago after federal authorities accused him of stealing more than $16 million.

The scandal has not hampered Ohtani on the field; he entered last Thursday’s game batting .371 with a 1.129 on-base plus slugging percentage for the Dodgers. He offered a small window into his mindset when asked directly how the betrayal from Mizuhara, who authorities have charged with manipulating Ohtani’s bank accounts, has affected him.

“The investigation is currently still going on, so I can’t really say much about that,” Ohtani said through Ireton last Wednesday. “But it made me really realize how supportive the teammates, the organization, the staff have been toward me. It’s just allowed me to really reflect on how grateful I am to be surrounded by them.”

Ohtani has not suddenly become an open book. He declined to say who within the organization he has leaned on during this past month. “I do want to avoid mentioning specific names,” said Ohtani, who has spent time with outfielder Teoscar Hernández and strength and conditioning coach Travis Smith. “Obviously, I don’t mind the team mentioning that. Obviously, right now, it’s the middle of the regular season. I don’t want to create some kind of distraction.”

Ohtani deflected another question about how his life has changed without Mizuhara around. “The new interpreter is probably pretty good,” Ohtani said through Ireton, who wore a bashful grin while providing the answer. Ohtani said nothing specifically about Mizuhara.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts praised Ohtani for his “willingness on the margins to get better.” He suggested that Ohtani was bonding with hitting coaches Aaron Bates and Robert Van Scoyoc. “They’re really building a good relationship and trust,” Roberts said. “I just see him now. I see him more. Before, you sort of just see him when he gets to the batter’s box. So he’s around a lot more, which is a good thing, too.”

The Dodgers have not left their stage of fascination with Ohtani. On Tuesday evening, Ohtani unleashed his sixth home run of the season, a rocket that registered an exit velocity of 118.7 mph and landed in the second deck of right field at Nationals Park. The blast registered as the hardest-hit ball of Ohtani’s career and the hardest ball hit by a Dodger since Statcast came online in 2015.

“Absurd,” outfielder James Outman called the blast. “If he hit that with backspin,” mused third baseman Max Muncy, “it’s out of the stadium, for sure.”

Yet Ohtani’s capacity for amazing his peers has not prevented Dodgers officials from attempting to help him improve. Roberts approached Ohtani last week about working on how he hits with runners on base. The situation has served as the one on-field blemish of Ohtani’s first month with the Dodgers: He was hitting .130 with a .345 OPS in 28 plate appearances with runners in scoring position heading into last Wednesday’s game.

“I thought he was expanding a little bit more than he needed to,” Roberts said. “So I just wanted to have the conversation with him.”

Ohtani appreciated the insight from the coaching staff. He discussed his approach with Roberts and his mechanics with the hitting coaches. “It was more about being proactive so that it allows me to have quality at-bats moving forward,” Ohtani said.

That conversation may have paid off immediately: In Wednesday’s game, Ohtani came up twice with runners in scoring position, and he hit RBI doubles both times.

The attention on Ohtani is not likely to slacken anytime soon. On Friday, in his first time facing the Toronto Blue Jays as a Dodger, he homered in a 12-2 win for Los Angeles. On Saturday, he drove in a run in a 4-2 Dodgers win. (He went hitless on Sunday as the Dodgers fell to Toronto, 3-1.) During the winter, Ohtani considered the Blue Jays and visited their spring training complex in Dunedin, Florida. For one memorable day in December, some inaccurate reporting permitted Toronto fans to believe Ohtani was about to take his talents to Canada.

“I was as surprised as any fan, in terms of news that was going around,” Ohtani said last week. “But I did meet with the Blue Jays organization. The impression that I got was that it was a really, really great organization. The fans are really good, too. Love the city, too. So I’m really looking forward to going to Toronto.”

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