Two-way star Shohei Ohtani conquered two of his biggest issues on the mound this season against the Astros on Tuesday night, working through an uneventful first inning and only walking one batter over seven strong innings in one of the best starts of his career.
Ohtani struck out 10 and gave up one run on four hits, a solo shot to Kyle Tucker in the fifth inning. He exited after the seventh inning, having thrown 88 pitches and lowering his ERA to 2.10 in five starts, but surprisingly moved to right field for the eighth so that he could remain in the game to hit in the ninth.
It was yet another way to employ the versatile Ohtani, who has struck out 40, walked 20 and surrendered just 11 hits in 25 2/3 innings this season, while also smacking 10 homers at the plate.
“To see Shohei find the fastball command, that's what we've been talking about,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “That's what it's going to look like most of the time. He gives up the home run fly ball to left field that is probably an out in most ballparks, but he looked spectacular. And he said, ‘Yeah, I'm good to go play right field.’ I didn't want to waste an at-bat with him.”
The move didn’t work out, however, as relievers Aaron Slegers and Alex Claudio struggled, combining to allow four runs. Ohtani had one ball hit to him in right field and struck out looking in the ninth. Maddon said he didn’t give much consideration to leaving Ohtani in to pitch in the eighth, as he believed he had seen enough from the right-hander, who hasn’t thrown more than 92 pitches in any of his outings this season.
“I was really anticipating 1-1 into the top of the ninth and it didn't occur,” Maddon said. “But I think his full complement of talents were on display tonight. That was the perfect storm basically where he was coming up in the batting order, pitching seven innings. It was all there. It couldn't have worked out any better, other than the outcome."
Ohtani entered with a 9.00 ERA in the first inning this season but a 0.61 ERA in all other frames as he’s struggled to get into a rhythm on the mound early in games. It looked like he could run into trouble early again, promptly giving up a single to Jose Altuve on the first pitch of the game. But he bounced back to retire the next three batters, including two by strikeout. Ohtani threw 12 pitches in the first, marking the first time he'd thrown fewer than 20 pitches in an opening frame this year.
Ohtani had also suffered from some command issues this year, entering with 19 walks in 18 2/3 innings and six in five innings in his last start. But he walked just one, issuing a free pass to Tucker with two outs in the second on a 3-2 slider out of the zone. He credited better fastball command for his success, as he was able to get quick outs with the pitch, even with Astros hitters being aggressive early in counts.
“I felt like they were sitting on my fastball,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “It opened up the splitter or breaking ball, but I felt like I could get one-pitch outs with the fastball.”
Ohtani also was in the lineup and batting second, which was the third time he's done that this season after never doing it in the Majors before this year. He became the first starting pitcher to hit for himself in three different games in which a designated hitter was available. He went 1-for-4, singling off Lance McCullers Jr. to lead off the seventh, and Ohtani’s overall performance impressed Astros manager Dusty Baker.
“That’s the best I’ve seen him throw,” Baker said. “He had 95-99 [mph] and was dotting the fastball low and away. That’s the best command and control. Boy, he’s some athlete. To do that and go play right field, too.”
His move to right field was also a rare occurrence, marking just the second time in his career that he’s appeared in the field. He also saw action in left field for an inning on April 24, when the Angels were losing 16-2 and were using a position player on the mound.
Ohtani said he was told he could possibly play the outfield in around the sixth inning and was fully on board with the decision. It’s something the Angels could also do a bit going forward, but Maddon said it would have to be under the right circumstances.
"It was a close game,” Ohtani said. “I figured with my spot in the batting order coming up in the ninth inning, if I could make a difference with the bat, I was all for it."