Toughness – not sublime talent – may be Ohtani’s greatest asset

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

After dealing with more setbacks, one-way Shohei Ohtani raked his way to the AL Player of the Week award.

By Stu Matthews | @stumatthews11

Shohei Ohtani has been a baseball showstopper this year, despite some stumbles, and a few missed cues by his own directors.

He can sing! He can dance! He can crack jokes! He can pull rabbits out of his hat! Look at that smile – nothing but class!

He can hit bombs! He can steal bases and run like the wind! And there’s something else … The kid can even pitch! …

… Oh wait, he can’t do that last bit for a while, but don’t let that get you down. There’s always The 2020 Shohei Pitching Revue to look forward to.

Ohtani responded to the bummer news that he’ll probably require Tommy John surgery after the season by turning in offensive numbers that made him the American League Player of the Week, announced Monday.

Not bad for a guy who’s just been told he shouldn’t continue the pitching half of the Sho – for a while. But the Sho goes on.

Did I mention he can provide high drama, chills, thrills and spills? Oh Yes He Can!

Chills – Ohtani made a risky return to the pitching rubber on September 2, only for the feared news to surface that he will likely need Tommy John surgery on his powerful right elbow this off-season.

Thrills – Ohtani electrified Angels’ fans by responded to that news with a very loud, Ruthian bat, showing everybody that one-way Shohei is definitely worth the price of a ticket.

Spills – Just days after the Tommy John news, Ohtani fell to the ground in apparent agony, clutching another apparent injury by playing tough, ballsy baseball.

That was Saturday night. Super-wild reliever Thyago Vieira of the Chicago White Sox uncorked a wild pitch to the backstop, and Ohtani – who had tripled – scrambled home, scoring a meaningless run in the Halos’ runaway 12-3 win.

As the Angels’ Japanese superstar slid safely (and gracefully) into home plate with run No. 10 in the ninth inning of a blowout, Vieira nearly blew Ohtani up.

Vieira is one of only three players from soccer-crazy Brazil on current MLB rosters. He’s also a big, beefy dude, and he does not have the balletic élan of the Selecao.

Covering home, Vieira crashed into the exposed Ohtani like the 345pm express train from Rio to Vieira’s native Sao Paulo.

Crash! Bang! Wallop!

The lithe Ohtani got crushed in the pile-up. He was giving away several pounds of freight to the huge wild-pitch slinger.

Angels fans everywhere grasped for their alcoholic beverages of choice in unison: Good God! … Nooooooo!

Hurt – again? – on a worthless run in a worthless game? The stunned Ohtani writhed in the dirt behind home plate in apparent agony. If it was an act, Shohei Ohtani was doing his best impression of Brazil’s Neymar after a phantom foul.

He had to be helped off the field, limping, and disappeared into the clubhouse. Good God, no.

But here’s the hitch – Ohtani don’t want your sympathy. He played Sunday morning,

Shohei Ohtani has shown everyone yet again that a serious badass lurks behind the charming smile, the impeccable manner, the boyish face, the Broadway good looks.

After being listed as day-to-day Sunday morning with a bruised thigh, an injury that would send many of today’s pampered baseballing millionaires to the treatment table and the bench.

Not Ohtani. He rubbed some dirt on it, old-school style. Ohtani grabbed his lethal lumber and headed back into the fray, a just-get-out-of-town game, batting cleanup as an anchor between superstar Mike Trout and slugger Justin Upton.

On a day when opposing starters Andrew Heaney and the White Sox’s Reynaldo Lopez took the mound in Chicago with mean streaks of their own, Ohtani manned up and collected one of both sides’ measly hits – a double off fireballing reliever Juan Minaya.

The teams struck out 28 times (14 per side) in a whiff-fest that was loveable only if you’re a fan of fanning. You could feel the breeze in California from the Windy City. The Angels won 1-0 on an RBI single by Kole Calhoun in a game that was about nothing much for either nine.

For Ohtani, perhaps it was about the honor in the duel. He’s showing a fierce hard-headed streak for a young man of only 24.

During his whirlwind courtship by nearly every MLB team last December, Ohtani made it very clear that he wanted the opportunity to both pitch and hit. Very clear.

He did it politely, of course. But Ohtani was firm. His two-way course was non-negotiable and pretty much ruled out any National League suitors, one of which, the Los Angeles Dodgers, were memorably jilted.

Then after an awful spring training, Ohtani defied all doubters and became the most fascinating player in baseball.

He went out and performed like a top of the rotation ace and an elite batter, a human highlight reel mashing home runs and striking out batters with unhittable splitters.

There could have been an argument made that Shohei Ohtani was the most gifted – if not the best – player in the major leagues, rather than his teammate Mike Trout.

Are you sensing a theme? This guy just doesn’t give up.

He’s perhaps similar in mentality to Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, who fought for the Japanese army garrison in the Philippines in 1944 til the end of the war but refused to surrender, continuing to fight World War II until the year 1974.

Ohtani’s refusal to back down will serve him well as his major league career unfolds. Because not even hurdles as big as Vieira seem to deter him.

He knew he had a Grade One sprain of his UCL and threw 100mph heaters anyway. When the sprain was "upgraded" to a Grade Two sprain after an aborted start on June 6. Ohtani missed 22 games while the Angels’ doctors monitored him – which in hindsight may have been overly cautious, given the youngster’s relentless pursuit of baseball excellence.

The time off made him mad. He came back to the Angels lineup as a designated hitter on July 4, and Shohei The Hitter quickly resumed mercilessly murdering baseballs.

He was stymied by the Angels organization again – through no fault of his own -- because the club felt a need to fit the peg of pride, professionalism and dwindling production of sore-legged future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols into ever-loyal Mike Scioscia’s lineup holes a few days a week.

The policy limited Ohtani’s at-bats at DH, the only "position" the young man can play, when he returned from the disabled list. Pujols’ presence was a big block to the big time talent of Ohtani.

But did Shohei give up? Hell no! He bided his time – much like Onoda -- until Pujols’ sputtering engine was shut down for the season on August 30. Pujols succumbed to left knee surgery.

Pujols’ exit (until 2019, at least) gave Scioscia the liberty, and an opening, to unleash Ohtani at DH, even against left-handed pitchers, which . Perhaps in respect to Pujols’ seniority, the ever-loyal Angel skipper usually gave Ohtani the day off.

Ohtani doesn’t want a day off. He’s an Action Man, and he wants to kick some butt. Ohtani has scared the beejebus out of AL pitchers.

No pitcher is eager to see Ohtani stride into the batter’s box, adopt that menacing samurai stance, and then take him deep. It’s embarrassing. The kid’s a rookie.

I’m not much of a stat man, but let’s stack up some of that carnage: As the days shorten and diminish, Ohtani looms larger as he gets nearer.

How big are the numbers? Last week, Ohtani raked to an insane .474/.565/1.263 slash line with four homers, 10 RBI, a double and triple and four runs scored in a five-game span. Hence Ohtani’s second AL Player of the Week honor, and his first since the week of April 8 when he first opened MLB’s eyes.

Said superstar Trout, who enjoyed a stellar week himself with Ohtani batting behind him: "It’s pretty cool that a two-way player, when you get injured doing one thing, you can do another.

"And it’s pretty amazing how he could easily shut the season down, but he wants to finish out strong."

Ohtani appears stoically aware of the tests ahead of him. Assuming that Ohtani opts to have Tommy John surgery when the summer and season ends, the rehab process will be tough. Ohtani is realistic.

At least now he knows. Post-surgery, it has been suggested that he could begin swinging a bat again within three months, with a view to being ready to roll on or about Opening Day.

A secondary reality is that Ohtani can – and really should be – an everyday designated hitter in the 2019 campaign, which the Angels are right to hope doesn’t end with flattened hopes, like this one.

Ohtani will be ready. As for his ambitions beyond 2019? Well, Ohtani’s goal remains the same as it’s been since he turned professional in Japan at the age of 18: To excel with the bat and on the mound as Two-Way Shohei.

That dream, frayed this season, can come true again in 2020 – Trout’s final year under contract in Anaheim – if a Tommy John procedure is a success. But there’s no questioning Ohtani’s willpower.

"The idea of not pitching (in 2020)" Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, "Is not a consideration for me."

Well, OK then.

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