The day after hitting his 40th home run of the season—and leaving his pitching duties early due to a spasm in his right middle finger—Shuhei Ohtani entered the Los Angeles Angels dressed, as always, in Southern California chic: flip flops, navy shorts, Black t-shirt and black backwards baseball cap.
It is difficult to say whether he expected to be here.
When the Angels returned to Anaheim for their first home after the August 1 trade deadline, they were celebrating successful trips to Detroit, Toronto and Atlanta that revived hope for the team’s season. And most importantly, they’re back with the face of the franchise still going.
Countless pundits expected Ohtani, a free agent after this season, to be traded at the deadline, but no one working at Angel Stadium seemed to have thought things would turn out any other way than them.
“We have a special player having a really unique, special year with a competitive team,” said general manager Perry Minassian. “And for us, if we don’t give ourselves a chance to improve and move forward, it would be, in my opinion, the wrong decision.”
Minassian added, “He’s someone we all love, someone I love, and I hope he’s here for a long time.”
Whether Ohtani remains an angel for another two months, or the rest of his career, is an open question. His free agency is expected to be among the wildest endeavors of a player in baseball history. Rather than pull away, the Angels kept him close as they made a number of deadline moves in hopes of adding depth to their heavy club.
In adding starting quarterback Lucas Giolito, relievers Reynaldo Lopez and Dominic Leon, first baseman C.J. Crone and outfielder Randall Grichuk, the injury-beaten Angels, who stood in three MLS games in the wild-card chase on the morning of August 1, thought they had strengthened themselves in their fight. making the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
The deadline moves also provided a goodwill gesture for Otani, whose words two years ago last September continued to echo loudly: He loves his team, he loves his fans, but above all else, he just wants to win.
Outside of the white lines, Ohtani, 29, remains the game’s biggest mystery. He doesn’t say much, and provides fewer clues regarding his life outside of the game. He answers questions only after they are asked, i.e. every six days or so. Until then, he’s in the tunnel outside the Angels Club – a lone man and his interpreter propped up by a concrete wall, no sign of the personality they show apart from reporters, short answers, little depth.
Angels officials stand guard while he speaks, ready to cut the first part of the interview to go to the Japanese media section. Then they’re still willing to cut that out too so Otani can escape back into the protective cocoon of club and baseball purity to which he’s so passionately and wholly devoted his life.
When he finished speaking after Thursday’s heartbreaking 5-3 loss to the Mariners, in which the Angels were two periods away from victory, Ohtani quietly retreated to the chair in front of his locker, doing what many young men do after work. From their device for hours: phone in his left hand, he stared intently at the screen while a large icepack encased his right elbow. His interpreter Ippei Mizuhara sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor next to him as they decompressed from another day in Shuhei-land.
That night’s game produced another viral moment in a career filled with them. Otani left the game as a pitcher after only four innings and 59 pitched due to a cramp, but stayed in the game as a designated hitter and hit an eighth home run at an exit speed of 107 miles per hour.
“how could you Do Which?” said Mark Gubicza, Angels radio host and longtime pitcher. “It’s like watching Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Tiger Woods play baseball, all in one game. He is eccentric. Cramp in your right hand and you’re still hitting the ball at 107mph? “
In the midst of another amazing season, Ohtani was leading the majors in homers (40) through Monday, and was also leading in total bases (282), extra base hits (66) and base plus slugging percentage (1.082). He was tied for the major league lead in triples (seven).
On the mound, he leads the majors in lowest batting average of opponents (. 186). The second Most Valuable Player award seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
His importance to the Angels is off the charts: He’s been leading the team, by a wide margin, in plate appearances (501) and innings pitched (124).
“He’s as mentally strong as anyone else I’ve ever been around,” said manager Phil Nevin.
By holding it to the deadline, the Angels have clung on to what they feel is an important piece of rope holding the two sides together. Competitors will line up in the free agent market — the general belief is that the Dodgers hold back this summer so they can throw all available resources at Ohtani this winter — but the Angels have every intention of expanding what’s been a great relationship, even if it doesn’t yet lead to team success.
Despite continued frustration with baseball-less October, the Angels did everything they could to build the perfect environment for their one-of-a-kind superstar. He has been given the creative space to flourish as a hitter and as a pitcher. He is free to follow his own individual routine. The club has protected it from the news media, ensuring that all of this is possible without too many outside interruptions.
Had they chosen to trade a player who was building a strong case for himself as the greatest in history, it would have been a humiliating admission of failure. Deciding to keep him knowing they could lose him to a draft pick this winter is risky, too — especially considering that the Angels, in their bid to reload, traded two of the best prospects in a modest farm system: catcher Edgar Coero and left-handed pitcher Kei. Bush. In addition, the acquisition of Giolito helped push the Angels over the luxury tax threshold of $233 million — a first under owner Arte Moreno.
“What I’m allowed to do, I don’t take lightly,” Minassian said of working with Moreno. “I’ve said this from day one – I want to be with people who want to win as badly as I do.”
No one understands the total value of Otani more than Angels. Club officials feel its impact every day as they watch the crowd of fans enter Angel’s stadium. They see it in the rows outside the team store as Ohtani merchandise flies off the shelves, including his jerseys, the second most popular jersey in baseball after Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. ), probiotic drinks (Yakult), imaging products (Konica Minolta) and cats (Churu, “Japan’s No. 1 Cat Treatment”).
By the time Moreno announced this spring that his 124-day exploration to sell the club was over and he would retain ownership, the value of the franchise, according to Forbes, It was $2.7 billiona huge increase from estimates of $1.8 billion when Ohtani joined the club – and an unimaginable jump from 2003, when Moreno bought the team for $183 million.
The team runs the Otani business, and from ownership to the front office to the dugout, nobody wants to change that.
“Honestly, the only time we thought about him leaving was when other people mentioned him,” said the team’s injured freshman catcher Logan Ohope. “We never talked about it internally. And he did the most incredible job of not getting him into the room. Everyone obviously knew what was going on, and he made it clear that he’s part of this group. And everyone appreciates him.”
He added, “It’s crazy. You don’t even realize who he is because he’s so humble and stays the same.”
O’Hoppe is one of 18 major league baseball players on the Angels’ injured list. The team activated player Brandon Drury over the weekend. Ohope (shoulder), third baseman Anthony Rendon (bruised shinbone) and pitcher Sam Bachman (shoulder) are expected to return in the coming weeks. And outfielder Mike Trott, the team’s other pillar alongside Ohtani, is hoping to make a comeback soon from a broken bone in his hand.
“So that was part of it as well,” Minassian said, noting the team’s optimism for the deadline.
Things haven’t gone well since then.
The Angels won 10-of-13 in August, but after two losses to Atlanta, a four-game sweep by the Mariners and a brutal late collapse against San Francisco on Monday, the Angels fell to eight games behind. Wild Card Race. Otani suffered muscle cramps in three matches over eight matches and guessed the culprit was “exhaustion”. He’s played in 112 of 114 games, and was the starting pitcher in 21 of them — that’s after leading Japan to the gold medal in the World Baseball Classic this spring.
As usual, he did not address the trade deadline nor his future with the Angels after Thursday’s start. He just talked about the game he just played.
“Ideally,” he said wistfully, “I wish I had gone 100 pitches and saved the game.”
However, he hit base in all four plate appearances, moved to second to put himself in position to score the team’s first home run, and then smashed another epic, muscle cramp or no cramp.
It was all part of an ongoing pattern of madness. The super otani is playing out of this world, and the defective angels are stuck on Earth. As they hope and wait – and try to get better – their teammates have a front row seat for a performance that has no real precedent in MLB history.
“While I’m grinning from ear to ear and looking left and right, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, that’s just what he does,'” Giolito, a newcomer, said of watching Ohtani hit Homer with a tight hand. “
He added, “But for me, it’s very special to watch and be on this side of it instead of the other.”
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