NEW YORK -- A buzz overcame Citi Field on Friday, far beyond the bounds of a typical late August game between non-contenders. Shohei Ohtani was in the house, and everyone knew it.
When Ohtani stepped into the on-deck circle to open the game, the crowd cheered and murmured. When he was announced over the PA system, the applause felt more befitting for a member of the home team. It was the largest Friday night crowd at Citi Field since just after the All-Star break, not even including the roughly four dozen Japanese media members in attendance.
The main attraction was not just Ohtani, who was set to take his first hacks at designated hitter since it was announced he has a torn UCL in his pitching elbow earlier this week, but also Ohtani’s matchup with countryman Kodai Senga. If a bright spot has illuminated any part of the Mets’ season, it has been Senga, an offseason signing who may get National League Cy Young Award votes. Ohtani, he is not. Valuable, he is.
On Friday night, both Japanese players managed to star. Ohtani reached base in all three of his plate appearances against Senga, including a 115.4 mph double that rated as one of the 50 hardest-hit balls from any Major Leaguer this season. But Senga struck out 10 batters and otherwise held the Angels in check throughout a 3-1 Mets loss, allowing three or fewer earned runs for an 11th consecutive start.
The defeat, the Mets’ third straight, ensured that they will spend a full day in last place for the first time all season. But many of the 38,281 in attendance were more interested in the sideshow.
“It’s fun for the fans,” Mets manager Buck Showalter said. “I can tell you that.”
Coincidentally, Friday happened to be Japanese Heritage Night at Citi Field, drawing a significant crowd for that event. The din throughout the evening was loud enough for some to deduce that when Senga walked Ohtani on four pitches in his first plate appearance, perhaps nerves were eating at the pitcher. Shutting down that line of thinking, Showalter insisted that Senga is “not going to let his ego or his emotions get in the way.”
Instead, Showalter posited, Senga was merely treading carefully around one of the game’s best hitters, trying to get him to chase. Senga noted that he didn’t have his best command against anyone early, but he settled in during the middle innings.
“I don’t know if it was a special day per se,” Senga said through an interpreter, “but it was a good experience.”
Several weeks ago, Showalter asked Senga if he wanted to start against the Angels, understanding all the hoopla that would result. Senga’s response was that it didn’t make a difference for him; whatever was best for the team. He had pitched to Ohtani in the past in Japan, in games both ordinary and important. The idea of facing him again didn’t faze the right-hander.
Senga and Ohtani are friendly enough that at the All-Star Game earlier this summer in Seattle, when asked about the possibility of his countryman coming to Queens as a free agent, Senga playfully placed his own Mets cap on Ohtani’s head. How Ohtani’s UCL injury affects that impending free agency is a matter of hot speculation that figures to continue over the coming months. The Mets, who are trying to limit their long-term commitments, weren’t an obvious candidate to sign Ohtani before his injury. Might that change if his price drops? Could the Mets get creative on a contract structure, as they recently did with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander?
If so, Citi Field could buzz like it did on Friday far more often. Senga has been a marketing machine since his arrival in Flushing for a Mets team that has choreographed stadium graphics and sound effects around him. Friday’s giveaway was a glow-in-the-dark baseball -- a “ghost fork” as it were -- emblazoned with Senga’s signature. Consider what the marketers could cook up for him and Ohtani together.
But that’s all conjecture for another day. Friday was both a celebration of Senga’s season and a recognition of Ohtani’s -- an event worth watching despite a pair of disappointing rosters around those two stars.
“I think he’s a very special player,” Senga said of Ohtani. “That in itself makes everything special. I had faced him a couple times in Japan, and I was excited to face him again here.”