ANAHEIM, Calif. — Shohei Ohtani chased a changeup in the dirt, mishit a blooper that didn’t leave the infield, flailed at a slider outside, then fell behind in the count 0-2 against Kenley Jansen, one of the game’s best closers, with one out remaining in front of a sold-out crowd at Angel Stadium.
Then, in a matter of moments, Ohtani breathed life back into the reeling Los Angeles Angels, for one Friday night and, they hope, for the rest of this summer.
The Japanese two-way sensation worked a walk, stole second base, took third on an errant throw, scored on an RBI single by David Fletcher and watched from the dugout as Ian Kinsler delivered the walk-off base hit to right field, sending the Angels into an improbable 3-2 victory over the surging Los Angeles Dodgers.
Ohtani entered that final plate appearance 2-for-12 since being activated off the disabled list — including 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in the Freeway Series opener — but displayed his composure in a tight situation.
It started with watching four consecutive Jansen cutters sail above the strike zone.
“I think it speaks to the threat he is at the plate,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said of Ohtani, who joined Shin-Soo Choo as the only players to work a walk after falling behind 0-2 to Jansen this season.
“Jansen, he’s as good as there is in the back end of a game. He’s going to try to elevate that cutter, and he knows he has to get it up because if it’s not quite where he wants it to go, Shohei has a chance to barrel it, and with his power he can drive it out. He tried to elevate it, and he was just missing up too far.”
Scioscia called Ohtani “the second-fastest player on our team,” behind only Mike Trout — but he didn’t send him.
Ohtani “was on his own” to steal, Scioscia said, and he broke for what was only his second stolen base all season on the next pitch Jansen threw.
“I wanted to make sure one base hit could get me home,” Ohtani said through his interpreter. “I wasn’t absolutely going to go on the first pitch, but it’s easier on the hitter if I steal the base earlier in the count.”
Ohtani has not thrown a baseball since June 6. He was given a stem cell and platelet rich plasma injection in hopes of treating a Grade 2 sprain on his ulnar collateral ligament without the need for Tommy John surgery, and he is still waiting to find out if it worked. The 24-year-old was cleared for hitting on June 28 and will be re-evaluated on July 19, at the earliest, to determine when he might be able to restart his throwing program.
In the meantime, the Angels are comfortable with Ohtani helping them as a hitter because the inside part of his lead elbow — Ohtani pitches right-handed and bats left-handed — isn’t affected as a hitter.
In an interview with ESPN, Angels general manager Billy Eppler previously expressed concern that random events on a baseball field — awkward swings, collisions, bad headfirst slides — could affect Ohtani’s right elbow and thus impact his recovery as a pitcher. But Scioscia said stealing bases is not necessarily a problem, specifically because Ohtani is sliding feet first.
“We’re past that with his elbow,” Scioscia said. “He’s not going to slide headfirst. That’s the thing you would worry about with any player, let alone a guy who pitches.”
Ohtani struck out and popped out in his first two at-bats against countryman Kenta Maeda, moving to 2-for-9 lifetime against the Dodgers’ starting pitcher. He then chased a breaking ball way off the plate against lefty reliever Scott Alexander, but later helped hand Jansen his first blown save since April 17.
“I had him where I wanted, and I feel like I almost lost the feel of my fastball up in that zone,” said Jansen, whose Dodgers have won 31 of their last 45 games. “I couldn’t get it where I wanted to.”
Ohtani’s batting average is still .278 — more than 30 points above the league average — but it has dropped 76 points over his past 20 games. He came up representing the tying run, for an Angels team that had dropped nine of its previous 12 games. But staying patient, and not searching for the home run, came easy to him.
“I couldn’t get a hit today, so, any way I can get on base,” Ohtani said. “And that was a walk.”