Leadoff walk a good omen for dominant Ohtani

Angels' ace replicates early season success with a free pass, then brilliance

May 22nd, 2023

ANAHEIM -- Angels manager Phil Nevin joked he knew was in for a good outing after he walked the leadoff batter in the series finale against the Twins on Sunday.

Ohtani walked the first batter he faced in each of his first four starts this season but had a 0.86 ERA over that stretch. He had fallen into a recent rut, however, posting a 6.12 ERA over his previous four starts. But after walking leadoff hitter Joey Gallo in the first, he got back on track with a strong outing against Minnesota. Ohtani allowed one run over six innings and struck out nine in a 4-2 win at Angel Stadium to complete the club’s first series victory over a club with a winning record this season.

“He walked the leadoff hitter in his first four outings and was unbelievable after that, and then he didn’t do it for a while, so when he did it today, I made a joke that he’s going to have a great one,” Nevin said with a smile. “It’s not that I like him walking the leadoff hitter, but it was a good one today.”

Ohtani was saddled with a no-decision, however. He departed with the game tied at 1-1, and the Angels didn’t take the lead until the seventh inning on a two-run double from . But it was still an encouraging sign for Ohtani, who had surrendered at least three earned runs in each of his past four outings and had been plagued by the long ball.

Ohtani did walk three and hit a batter, but he limited the damage by surrendering just two hits. In 10 starts this season, Ohtani has posted a 3.05 ERA with 80 strikeouts and 25 walks in 59 innings. He had allowed a combined eight homers over his past four starts, but he kept Minnesota in the yard.

“It’s hard to control whether they hit a home run or not, but I just tried to make them feel uncomfortable and not take good swings,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “That was the game plan.”

Ohtani walked the leadoff hitter in the second inning as well but pitched his way around it. But in the third, he issued a two-out walk to Gallo and paid for it, as Carlos Correa ripped an RBI double to right on a 1-2 sweeper that caught too much of the zone.

Ohtani said he meant to throw that pitch out of the zone, and he also lamented allowing too many leadoff hitters to reach.

“It’s not just the first batter of the game, I’ve been walking too many leadoff hitters,” Ohtani said. “It makes it stressful, so I need to cut down on that.”

Ohtani, though, settled down from there, retiring eight of the last 10 batters he faced, including inducing a double play in the fifth after allowing a leadoff single to Willi Castro. He struck out six batters over that stretch, including the last four he faced. His final two strikeouts came on sweepers that fooled both Alex Kirilloff, who struck out looking, and Edouard Julien, who couldn’t check his swing in time.

Ohtani was removed after throwing 99 pitches (62 strikes) with the game tied after brought home a run with a sacrifice fly in the fourth off Twins right-hander Pablo López. It was the fifth time over the past six starts that Ohtani went at least six frames, as he has been giving Los Angeles plenty of length. It’s one reason why the Angels are 8-2 in his 10 starts.

“He’s kept us in every game. I know he’s given up some runs, but it seems like he gets to that finish line with us having the lead,” Nevin said. “He’s one of the best in the game, and he knows when to dial it up. We’ve won the majority of games he’s pitched.”

Ohtani mixed up his pitches more than he usually does, as he didn't rely as heavily on his sweeper. He threw it 27 times, compared to 26 four-seamers, 19 cutters, 16 splitters and 11 sinkers. It kept the Twins off-balance, as Minnesota whiffed 22 times on 45 swings. The sweeper generated the most swings and misses with seven, but the four-seamer and cutter elicited six whiffs, while the splitter got two and the sinker got one.

“It was just part of the game plan,” catcher Chad Wallach said. “Those pitches match up really well with that team. He had it going really well today. He had a little bit better location. But really anything he throws, it’s going to be good.”