By Stuart G. Matthews | @stumatthews11
Shohei Ohtani homered again Wednesday. The haters and doubters have gone silent – temporarily.
Snap. Crackle. Pop. The snap of a thousand camera shutters, the crackle of Shohei Ohtani’s pitches, and the pop in Ohtani’s bat.
This is the soundtrack to baseball’s happiest early season story.
And now, even those who suspected Ohtani’s skills the most are sheepishly admitting that the Angels’ two-way miracle kid really might be darn good at baseball, on both sides of the ball.
Boog Sciambi of ESPN doesn’t like comparisons of Ohtani to Babe Ruth, and to be honest, I don't really like them either.
"Well, I mean, look. This guy is the guy," stammered Sciambi, on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight podcast Wednesday morning with Buster Olney, as if stunned by Olney’s lead-in mention of Ohtani and Ruth in the same sentence – before rallying somewhat.
"Uh, yeah, who is the point of comparison? The last time we’ve had anyone that’s tried to start this off, and still hit, is Babe Ruth. I really don’t … I don’t have beef with it.
"Just keep running him out there, and we’ll see."
Then Boog doubled-down with almost a tone of negative menace: "We’ll see."
Sciambi said no one really knew how good Ohtani might be because the Angels had hidden his talent behind a bushel – on the back fields in Tempe.
Hmmmmn. How many teams give away their secrets before the season?
"They’re looking at stuff that we can’t see," Sciambi walked it back. Really, Sherlock? Well, at least you had a media credential.
Hey, Boog: It wouldn’t hurt to drop in a Babe Ohtani line next time.
Sciambi stepped in it again by trying to tone down the Ohtani Hype-O-Meter, saying: "A guy that’s as young as he is … remember what a special circumstance he was. Because he didn’t want to wait and go through the posting process … Again, he’s 22 years old. … There’s still a lot of growth that can happen."
(He’s not 22, Boog. Ohtani turns 24 on July 5. Just sayin’ – accuracy is important in media)
Jeff Passan, national baseball writer for Yahoo Sports, emerged as Ohtani’s most visible critic as the Angels broke camp from Tempe, suggesting that Ohtani may be damaged goods, and quoted a scout as saying that Ohtani belonged in Single-A ball.
Passan is an excellent writer – his book The Arm (about Tommy John surgery) is a must-read. But Passan's willingness to wear the black hat in such a fun baseball story is odd. Passan takes on tough topics. But perhaps he was feeling a bit guilty Tuesday night when he tweeted:
"Ohtani now 2 for 2 after a line-drive single … There is medium-rare crow in my oven at the moment."
The Chorus of Doubts, after Ohtani’s mostly forgettable Cactus League spring, sang loud and proud.
Ohtani's response was said without the trace of a snarl. Asked about his media critics by Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, Ohtani's response was as blunt as it gets: "I don't have anything to say to those guys."
I don't have anything to say to those guys. ~ Shohei Ohtani on his media critics.
Even Angels fans trended to the negative after Tempe. Comments even here on SB Nation recommended a visit to AAA for Shohei.
Khahn Bui, a supermarket manager in Moorpark and a huge Angels fan, remained skeptical about Ohtani’s potential. Said Bui: "What would be impressive for me? If Ohtani wins the AL Rookie of the Year, and the Cy Young, and the AL MVP. And make the All-Star team. ... Otherwise, he’s a bust."
Dang. Those are some high standards!
Ohtani is likely to pick up his first MLB honor Monday, when the American League Player of the Week (presented by W.B. Mason) is announced.
A W.B. Mason company spokesman told me yesterday: "Uhh. We can't say yet, obviously. But it looks like a no-brainer to me."
Yeah. And the week isn’t even over, technically. Ohtani The Pitcher makes his second start of the season at the Big A on Sunday opposing Oakland Athletics’ righty Kendall Graveman. The two will renew acquaintances, doing the same job on the same side of the ball.
Graveman happens to be the same pitcher that Ohtani The Batter faced on Thursday. It seems a long time ago now.
There's a delightful symmetry to all of this, which isn’t lost on one of America’s legendary baseball writers, or one of Japan’s baseball media experts.
Ross Newhan has seen plenty in his days as a sportswriter.
Newhan could be considered the Angels’ first representative in Cooperstown, considering he spent most of his legendary career with the Long Beach Press-Telegram and Los Angeles Times covering the Angels. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000, winning the JG Taylor Spink Award for lifetime acheivement.
Newhan, now in semi-retirement, chronicled the mania surrounding the Angels debuts of Wally Joyner (1986), Jim Abbott (1989), Tim Salmon (1992) and Mike Trout (2011).
So, I asked Ross what he thought about Ohtani’s amazing bow.
"It’s in a class by itself, simply by nature of the two-positions oddity. Now maybe if Babe Ruth had ever played for the Angels …" Newhan said.
Over in Japan, John E. Gibson of Japan News Sports, and the Japan Baseball Weekly English-language podcast, picks up the ball.
"No one is going bonkers over here, because we’ve seen this kid do this for five years (for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters)," Gibson said.
Gibson takes his morning run in Tokyo on streets generously strewn with the fallen pink petals of cherry blossoms. That’s a sign of springtime in Japan, and Gibson scratched his head when he looked at Ohtani’s spring stats.
The American expatriate admits that "Ohtani Fever" is in full flow in Japan, but nothing "beyond what it was before when he did this for the Fighters." He said Ohtani’s MLB games are on TV in the morning hours, but people don’t huddle in sports bars or online to watch their native son pitch in America.
"It’s not like at night, when everyone is watching and can blow up Twitter," Gibson said. "Many people don’t find out (what Ohtani has done) until they check their phones. They’re at work.
"When he went to the bigs, the only thing I said was: ‘Let him try.’ He has the ability to do both (pitch and bat) – why make him do only one thing?"
"He’s just showing he deserves the chance."
And Gibson hinted at another change in Japan other than the cherry blossoms, after he had watched Ohtani’s two-run homer Wednesday tie a game against Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber, a game the Angels won in extras on Zack Cozart’s walk-off.
Said Gibson: "Dramatic win for the Angels. We might see people wearing Angels garb in Japan soon. Yanks, M’s, Dodgers stuff has been popular for years, but not so much with the Angels."
Ohtani has taken the ball running at full tilt. So, let’s quickly recap what has made this first week so splendid for Sho-Time.
Thursday, March 29: Ohtani admitted to some natural jitters when the Angels opening the season in Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, and manager Mike Scioscia had Ohtani in the lineup as the No. 8 hitter and DH. Wisely, the majors’ longest serving is protective of Ohtani – but his player is hell-bent for leather.
Ohtani didn’t take long to settle his nerves. The first pitch from Graveman, Oakland’s ace, was in the zone and the lefty-swinging Ohtani lashed it past diving first baseman Matt Olson for a single.
He would finish the day 1-for-5 with three sharply hit groundouts and striking out against A’s reliever Chris Hatcher, as the Angels went on to lose 6-5 on an walk-off in 11 innings.
Easter Sunday, April 1: This was another first, as Ohtani made his debut as a starting pitcher. He pitched his team to a 7-4 win, striking out six Athletics batters in a commanding six-inning stint on the mound.
His strikeout victims were, in order: Marcus Semien, Olson, Khris Davis, Olson (again), Matt Chapman, Semien (again).
He made history as the first man since Ruth in 1919 with the Boston Red Sox to start as a non-pitcher on Opening Day, and then be a starting pitcher within his first 10 games (courtesy Stats LLC). His only blemish was a three-run homer surrendered to A’s third baseman Chapman. After allowing the homer, Ohtani retired 14 of the last 15 guys he faced.
Catcher Martin Maldonado was interviewed after calling the game. Maldy sounded like a Proud Papa.
Tuesday, April 3: This was the most exciting of Ohtani’s feats so far – so much so that it roused a high-decibel home run call from the normally laid-back Terry Smith.
Again, the Japanese starlet wasn’t wasting time again as an aggressive hitter. It was against the Cleveland Indians – one of baseball’s "super-teams" – and Ohtani golfed a mistake pitch low and away from Josh Tomlin high over the Konica Minolta sign on the high wall in right. A three-run homer any day before the wall was shortened by 10 feet.
The celebrations and reactions were the best. Mike Trout, baseball’s GOAT, thrust his hands in the air and clapped as Ohtani rounded the bases at speed (the batter thought it might be a triple).
And then baseball’s unwritten rules kicked in as the Angels indoctrinated Ohtani into their home-run club. Ohtani got the customary handshakes from third-base coach Dino Ebel and on-deck hitter Rene Rivera, and trotted back into a silent dugout.
Ohtani skipped along behind the rows of seats in the dugout where his teammates were pretending to have not noticed. They had seen, though. Ohtani tossed imaginary high-fives before grabbing Ian Kinsler, and sparking a hopping dilly-dilly celebration with his teammates. Mike Trout tousled Shohei's hair like a big brother.
Wednesday, April 4: This time, Ohtani was facing Indians ace Kluber. No matter.
In his first at-bat, Kluber struck him out on a questionable third-strike call Mike DiMuro. Ohtani just got revenge for the punch-out in the fifth inning, with his team trailing 2-0, with Andrelton Simmons on base.
Home run, this time to straight-away center. Kluber knew he had seen real-deal power. Ohtani belted it and the game was tied. This time the celebration was real in the dugout.
Trout greeted Ohtani at the dugout steps in a sweet and strange ritual that is so Mike Trout. He "butlered" Ohtani's helmet, removing it from the slugger's head and placing it in the helmet rack.
The game stayed knotted up until the bottom of the 13th inning. That’s when the Angels raised their record to 5-2 on the strength of fellow newcomer Zack Cozart’s walk-off homer.
David Adler, MLB.com’s Statcast guru, broke down just the batting side of Sho-Time’s lumber work in this Tweet:
"Shohei Ohtani yesterday:
104.5 mph home run
100.6 mph single
112.8 mph single
Shohei Ohtani today:
400-foot HR off Corey Kluber
29.8 ft/sec sprint speed
104.0 mph single off Cody Allen
Decent couple of days."
The pitching half of Sho-Time will be on display on Sunday afternoon as he takes the ball as the starting pitcher for an Angels team that doesn’t just want him – it needs him.
So, for the batting stat line: As a DH, Shohei Ohtani is 6-for-14 with two homers, five RBI, for a .429/.429/.857 line. That’s a 1.286 OPS.
Guess what, AL Player of the Week Awards? This week isn’t over yet.