Shohei Ohtani figured he’d be careful in his return to the mound after two injury-spoiled seasons.
A few batters in, the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way sensation reached back for a little extra — and brought back some of the buzz that surrounded his major league debut three years ago.
Ohtani reached 100 mph with his fastball and showed off his signature splitter while striking out five over 1 ²/₃ innings in the Angels’ 7-3 win over the Oakland Athletics on Friday. The right-hander allowed a run, three hits and two walks, struggling to command his slider but showcasing the arm strength and stuff that allowed him to dominate in the majors before Tommy John surgery in 2018.
“Since this was my first game, I wasn’t planning on letting it go in the beginning, especially early in counts,” Ohtani said via translator. “As the game went on, I felt better and I started throwing harder, but I think that led to me cutting the ball a couple times, so it’s something I have to work on.”
The 26-year-old Japanese star stunned baseball with his two-way ability as a rookie in 2018, going 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA in 10 starts and hitting .285 with 22 homers as a designated hitter. He tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow during the season, though, and had Tommy John surgery that October.
Ohtani stayed off the mound in 2019 yet thrived as a full-time designated hitter. But he faltered on both sides of the ball trying to resume his two-way role during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He struggled in two starts on the mound and put his pitching on hold amid a right forearm/elbow strain. He slumped at the plate, too, hitting .190 with seven homers.
The 2018 AL Rookie of the Year is off to a strong start this spring on both sides. He crushed a 468-foot homer over the batter’s eye at Tempe Diablo Stadium in a game Wednesday, then showed improved mechanics on the mound Friday.
“It really starts with his delivery, I think it’s more clean and consistent,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I like his arm stroke better. It starts there and then he’s able to recapture the velocity he’s had in the past, and the really good break of his splitter. The big thing for his success is going to be repetition of delivery and knowing where his fastball is going consistently.”