This is scary: Ohtani 'in a much better place'

March 22nd, 2022

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Two-way phenom 's first start of the spring went exactly to plan: He threw 2 1/3 strong innings and struck out five in the Angels' 8-5 loss to the Royals on Monday at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

Ohtani, the reigning American League MVP, threw 50 pitches with 34 going for strikes. He has a good chance to be the club’s Opening Day starter, and is trying to get built up to throw around 90 pitches by the start of the regular season. He gave up one run on three hits and a hit-by-pitch and came away pleased with his outing.

"I just wanted to get to my pitch limit and see how hitters were reacting to my pitches,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “That was my main focus."

Ohtani, 27, said he threw all of his pitches except for his splitter, saying that pitch isn’t one he needs to work on much during Spring Training because he always has a good feel for it. Instead, he tried to work more on his cutter and slider, while also mixing in some elevated fastballs, two first-pitch curveballs and a few changeups in the dirt.

"He just wanted to get a feel for his pitches,” catcher Max Stassi said. “He wanted to throw the four-seam up. Throw his cutter and slider to both sides. He threw a few curveballs for a first pitch. He just wanted a feel for it all."

Stassi had a front-row view of Ohtani’s first start and liked what he saw from the right-hander. Ohtani had plenty of velocity and was able to fool several of the Royals' hitters with his assortment of off-speed pitches once he got to two strikes. But he did give up a run in the final inning when he gave up a triple to Kyle Isbel, which just got by Brandon Marsh in right field, and an RBI single to Edward Olivares that ended his outing.

"I think he picked up where he left off last year,” Stassi said. “He put a lot of hard work in this offseason. He's in a much better place going into this year. I think he has a better understanding of the two-way stuff and what he needs to do. He wants to increase his workload."

Angels manager Joe Maddon was similarly impressed by Ohtani, but said he's not ready to name him his Opening Day starter just yet. But Ohtani could be back in the lineup at designated hitter as early as Tuesday.

"He was really good," Maddon said. "He looked great. Stassi even came back and said he looked even better than last year. I was really impressed with it. The one kid, Olivares, worked a good at-bat against him but I thought he looked outstanding and had everything going on. The delivery was good and the fastball was good."

Stassi saw how hard Ohtani worked this offseason first-hand -- the two spent time together at the Driveline facility in Arizona in early February. He caught a few of Ohtani’s bullpens then and can tell that Ohtani is in an even better place physically than he was heading into last season.

There were still some injury concerns last year. Ohtani threw just 1 2/3 innings in 2020 and had trouble pitching that season after coming off Tommy John surgery in 2018. But he proved last year that he can handle being a two-way player, and now he has more confidence heading into this season.

"Last year was really his first full year coming off [Tommy John surgery],” Stassi said. “It was a learning experience of getting back out there and feeling good and healthy. He started attacking guys in the zone towards the end."

As Stassi noted, Ohtani finished the season strong on the mound, struggling with his control early in the year but pitching much better after the All-Star break. Ohtani had a 3.49 ERA with 35 walks in 67 innings in the first half of the season and a 2.84 ERA with nine walks in 63 1/3 innings in the second half.

Ohtani, though, noted that he has had to change his routine a bit this spring because of the shortened Spring Training schedule. But he said he hasn’t had any issues, and believes he’ll be fully ready for Opening Day. He’s expected to lead the club’s six-man rotation and serve as the club’s everyday designated hitter.

"It's a shorter Spring Training so I have shorter rest than normal in between my starts,” Ohtani said. “I just have to adjust my workload in practice in between games."