In a game known to be played by inches, it was time that held the collective breath of the sport. Half a minute was all it took for the world of baseball to see a season hang in the balance.
As a 90 mile-per-hour splitter that was swung-on-and-missed got away from Max Stassi, a throw to first was promptly followed by a return throw to home plate. As the ball sailed over a six-foot-four Shohei Ohtani, what occurred within instances was only one of the many storylines over an opening series between the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels.
From the first pitch of the series on Thursday night at 7:05pm PT, to 72 hours later was nothing shy of a 30-for-30 special on ESPN. Three games with a combined 39 runs scored by both teams, and two games seeing eighth inning comebacks from the local club, it was a highlight of what baseball could be for the Angels in 2021.
Sunday brought its own spectacular, showcased on a national stage of an ESPN broadcast. Shohei Ohtani would start the game as a pitcher, and bat for himself, replacing the designated hitter. The feat had only been matched once since the inclusion of the designated hitter when current Angels manager, Joe Maddon, made an error on the lineup card, placing Andy Sonnanstine as the starting pitcher, batting third for the Tampa Bay Rays, on May 17, 2009.
As the lineup card would show Ohtani batting second, that had only been matched twice in baseball’s history, and not since September 7, 1903 – over 118 years prior.
It didn’t take long for Ohtani to not show he was capable of manning both positions, but with authority. Retiring three of the first four batters he faced, Ohtani threw his fastball from 97-100 miles-per-hour, capping out at 100.6. Later in the first, Ohtani saw one pitch, swung, and sent it in the opposite direction, 450 feet from home plate.
A hitless inning on the mound, and absolute monster home run, all within minutes of each other.
“That’s the complete baseball player,” Joe Maddon said following the game. “Throws 100, hits it well over 400 feet. That’s what we’ve been talking about. He just needed the opportunity to do it.”
As the game continued, Ohtani continued his prowess on the mound, retiring 11 of the next 15 batters he faced.
A simple mound visit included some words from Ohtani to pitching coach, Matt Wise, that could not be repeated by manager Joe Maddon in the post-game Zoom session with the media.
An errant throw and two walks later, we return to the outset. 30 seconds.
The first 10 seconds: A swing-and-miss on a 90 mile-per-hour splitter. The ball goes to the back stop. A throw from Max Stassi to first that gets away from Jared Walsh. A return throw to the plate that goes over the head of Ohtani. A collective silence that hangs in the air, as Ohtani is now plummeting to the ground.
10 seconds into 30, Ohtani is hit in his left calf during a low slide from Jose Abreu.
10 more seconds. Ohtani moves from his side to his belly on the ground with the initial signs of grimace leaving his face as his eyes move towards his teammates and the athletic trainer.
10 more seconds. Ohtani is back on his feet.
Time carried on as it always does, but with less suspense. Ohtani walked a few feet away from home plate, carried on with his bodily inspection from the trainer, and was lifted from the game with an evaluation being announced not long after of “general soreness” and his removal from the game being non-injury related.
“I feel fine as of now,” Ohtani said after the game. “When the collision happened at home plate initially, the impact was kind of big, so I didn’t get up right away, but after a time I’m feeling much better.
“I landed on (Jose), and he was kind of like a cushion, so the impact wasn’t as bad as it looked initially.”
For the first time in his Major League career, Ohtani took the field as a healthy pitcher and healthy hitter. His talents could be the hinge that swings open to the Angels potentially pushing forward into a playoff picture – something that has eluded them every year since 2014.
Ohtani’s focus following the game wasn’t on the collision, but instead, the jam that he left on the base paths prior to and following his departure.
“Overall, I feel like I made a lot of good pitches,” Ohtani said. “The fifth inning, I was I could have gotten out of it a lot easier. I think I could have and that would have made our win much easier.”
In this new age of data that controls the baseball world, most managers would have not given their pitcher the opportunity to face such a challenge of the bases loaded and the middle of the order coming up. Not the case for Ohtani and Maddon.
“Did you see the stuff he had?” Maddon stated when questioned about the situation. “He got out of the inning until the ball got past Max.”
“I’m really grateful for Joe letting me get that extra hitter,” Ohtani said. “I wanted to get out of the jam and prove to everyone that Joe’s decision was correct, but I couldn’t. I did feel a lot of trust in Joe for letting me pitch in that situation.”
The game continued, as it always will. The White Sox tied the game late in the ninth inning, leading to another dramatic finish in Anaheim.
A leadoff single from Dexter Fowler and walk from Anthony Rendon placed a runner in scoring position, with Jared Walsh stepping up to the plate.
Walsh, who had tampered with being a two-way player himself in earlier years, had already hit a home run in the early phases of the game and was soon looking at a 3-1 count. Fastball, up-and-in. Swing. Bat drop.
Walsh’s hit traveled beyond the wall in left-center field for a three-run, walk-off home run. His knowledge of the hit was immediate, as his bat dropped from his hands almost simultaneously with contact. The conclusion of a wild opening series filled with drama capped out perfectly.
Despite the result, the focus continues on Ohtani. His soreness and workload will keep him out of the lineup on Monday, but the overall impression of his first time being a pitcher and hitter within the same game leaves much interest and intrigue for the future.
As many analysts have noted in the past, being able to do two things at once in the realm of a Major League Baseball game is so challenging, that it is rare you may ever see someone do it at the level that Ohtani does.
“Regardless of the results, as long as I know that I gave it my 100 percent effort, I think that’s going to lead to me having fun,” Ohtani said.
“I’m just going to take it one game at a time. I’m not really out there to try to prove doubters wrong or anything. I’m just trying to concentrate on each game.”
Though it is unlikely that Shohei Ohtani’s performance on Sunday will ever become the norm at the highest level of baseball, it does lead to a new element of the sport – a highly entertaining element for the viewers and partakers of the game.
“I think he felt liberated,” Maddon said. “He felt free. He was out there playing baseball… You don’t get to see that very often obviously.”