Lacking finishing move, Ohtani falls to Astros

Two-out runs, two-strike hits sink flamethrower vs. rival Valdez

June 3rd, 2023

HOUSTON -- After a rare stretch of four consecutive subpar starts, two-way superstar appeared to get things back on track with a pair of strong outings.

But those familiar problems resurfaced against the Astros on Friday, as Ohtani struggled to put away hitters with two strikes, gave up three runs with two outs and was hurt by two homers in a 6-2 loss at Minute Maid Park. Ohtani went six innings, allowing five runs on nine hits -- five of which came with two strikes -- and fell to 5-2 with a 3.30 ERA in 12 starts this year. Both of his losses have come opposite Houston lefty Framber Valdez, who again dominated the Angels with seven scoreless innings.

“I think it comes down to pitch selection and execution, which I wasn’t able to do,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “I feel like if I would’ve gotten more strikeouts, the momentum would’ve gone our way. But that wasn’t the case."

Ohtani, the AL MVP in 2021 and runner-up last year, had an incredible 0.64 ERA through his first five starts, but hit a rough patch, posting a 6.12 ERA over his next four starts and allowing eight homers in 25 innings. It looked like those problems were behind him, however, as he held both the Twins and Marlins to one earned run over six frames after working to fix his sweeper.

But Ohtani tied a season-high by allowing five runs against the Astros, and had trouble from the start, although the defense was again sloppy and didn’t help his cause. He gave up a questionable hit with one out in the first, as Jeremy Peña was credited with a single and advanced to second on an error on a play that third baseman should have made.

Ohtani got ahead of slugger Yordan Alvarez 0-2, but surrendered a two-run homer on a 2-2 sweeper that was near the heart of the zone. Angels manager Phil Nevin said there was little margin for error going to the sweeper because he threw the same pitch for a called strike to open the at-bat.

“He’d thrown him it earlier, and Alvarez, when he sees a pitch in the zone once, he usually doesn’t miss it the second time,” Nevin said. “It was just in a bad spot. There are some pitch selection things we’ll need to talk about. His stuff was there.”

Ohtani bounced back to retire the next 10 batters he faced, including striking out the side in the second inning, but gave up three straight hits to load the bases with two outs in the fourth after shortstop couldn’t handle a grounder to short from Chas McCormick. Ohtani managed to escape, though, inducing Corey Julks to ground out to first on a checked swing to end the inning.

He wasn’t as fortunate in the fifth and sixth innings, when he again struggled with two outs. He gave up a run in the fifth after walking Peña on a 3-2 sweeper before giving up back-to-back singles to Alvarez and Alex Bregman. But he was bailed out when Alvarez got caught between second and third to end the frame.

“I feel like I gave up some hits that found holes and were a bit unlucky,” Ohtani said. “It drove up my pitch count, and that definitely wasn’t part of the plan.”

He went back to the mound for the sixth at 91 pitches and again got two quick outs, but gave up a single to McCormick on a 1-0 sinker before serving up a two-run blast to Julks on a 3-1 cutter. It was the 10th homer he's surrendered this year after giving up 14 in 28 starts last season. Ohtani struck out Martín Maldonado to finish his outing with six strikeouts, but the damage was done.

“This guy is one of the best around,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker. “But he wasn’t as sharp tonight as we’ve seen him in the past.”

And much like Thursday’s loss in the series opener, the Angels simply couldn’t come through with runners on base. They went 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position, including hitting into critical inning-ending double plays in the fourth and seventh innings. Ohtani, who served as leadoff hitter, combined with to go 0-for-8 at the plate, and made the game’s final out.

“We’re getting a lot of guys on, but we’re just not getting that big hit,” Ohtani said. “We just need to get those big hits, because we’re getting runners on base.”