Ohtani slugs monster catwalk shot in loss

June 26th, 2021

Two-way phenom seemingly does something new every game and in Friday's 4-3 loss against the Rays, he smacked his first career leadoff homer. It was the hardest-hit leadoff blast by any player since Statcast was introduced in 2015. And, for good measure, he later showed off his speed in the third, reaching on his fourth bunt single of the year in his next at-bat.

Ohtani’s shot briefly tied him for the Major League lead in homers with 24 but an hour later, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. jumped back atop the leaderboard by himself with No. 25 in Toronto's contest against the Orioles at Sahlen Field. Ohtani's 24th dinger came on a 1-1 changeup from right-hander Andrew Kittredge and clanked off the D-ring catwalk at Tropicana Field, becoming just the 39th drive in the park's 24-year history to hit that particular catwalk. The leadoff shot traveled a projected 453 feet and left Ohtani's bat at 116.1 mph, according to Statcast, and manager Joe Maddon -- the Rays' skipper from 2006-14 -- thought it went even farther.

“That's wrong,” Maddon said. “It hit the top of the catwalk above the scoreboard. There's no way that's 453. I'm sorry. I've been here many times, and I've never seen that in a game or in batting practice."

Either way, it surpassed George Springer's record 115.8 mph leadoff homer with the Astros on Oct. 15, 2020. It was also Ohtani's second homer this year to be hit 116 mph or harder, tied for most in the Majors with Nelson Cruz, Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Zunino.

It was Ohtani's seventh homer over his past nine games. And just two batters later, hit a solo shot of his own to give the Angels a 2-0 lead.

Rays manager Kevin Cash joked before the game that he told Maddon not to play Ohtani and wasn’t going to talk to Maddon pregame when he saw the lineup with Ohtani batting leadoff.

“It didn't work,” Cash said. “I don't blame him. I wouldn't take him out of the lineup, either."

Ohtani, who also has a 2.58 ERA in 11 starts this season and is scheduled to make his next start at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, was leading off for just the second time this season and the third time in his career because was placed on the injured list with a lower back strain before the game.

"I did it today because J-Up wasn't available and also because they were using an opener,” Maddon said. “I wanted to get both lefties [Ohtani and ] up higher to make sure they both hit in the first. I didn't know the opener would go more than one inning but he did. I could've spread them out more and it might've helped us later but I did like it."

Ohtani looked more like a leadoff hitter in the third, surprising the Rays by dropping a perfect bunt down the first-base line on an 0-1 sinker from lefty Josh Fleming to advance to third after a leadoff double. Ohtani reached a sprint speed of 29.7 feet per second on his way to first, which is just a tick under the 30 ft./sec. that is considered elite by Statcast. It helped the Angels score a run on an RBI groundout from Walsh, although they couldn’t add on from there.

“Freak athlete, obviously,” Fleming said of Ohtani. “I was pretty shocked he laid down a bunt. I was not expecting it at all. But it was a good bunt, so good for him. But I got him his next at-bat [with a strikeout], so it's fine. "

The Halos finished 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position and their defensive struggles ultimately sunk them. Left fielder dropped a fly ball in the first inning that was key to the three-run frame and in the eighth, a fly ball to shallow left dropped in front of Ward, allowing the Rays to load the bases. The next batter was hit by a pitch to force home what proved to the winning run.

"It's a play we should've made,” Maddon said. “I can't deny that. But to me, it was in that area that could've or should've been an infield fly. Obviously, that was the play of the game. We had a tough day in the outfield today. The roof can be problematic, as we all know. It's not an easy place to play the outfield if you haven't played here."

Ward, who had never played at the ballpark before Friday, said after the game that both plays were on him.

"I don’t want to make any excuses,” Ward said. “I should have caught both those baseballs.”