Finally ‘having fun,’ Shohei Ohtani’s 2021 pitching debut reminds Angels, MLB fans the hype was real

MESA, Ariz. — You see it on the mound. You see it at the plate. You see it in the dugout.

The smile is back, the stress is gone, and Shohei Ohtani is sure starting to look like the same guy who was hyped as the greatest two-way player since Babe Ruth.

Ohtani, making his first spring-training start Friday in three years, showed flashes of why every team in baseball coveted him, hitting 100 mph on the radar gun, leaving hitters completely fooled with his lethal split-finger, and striking out five batters in his 1 ⅔ innings of work.

Ohtani, for the first time since signing with the Los Angeles Angels in December 2017, feels free and relaxed, no longer carrying the burden of limitations and restriction that has stifled his pitching career in America.

“Shohei likes the idea of being able to take charge of his own career,’’ Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “Why wouldn’t you? I don’t want to fabricate rules that may not be the best for him.’’

Shohei Ohtani pitches on Friday against the Oakland Athletics. (Photo: Matt York, AP)

Sure, the Angels likely still will keep him out of the starting lineup the day before he pitches, making sure he can make his scheduled start, but if he feels good the day after he pitches, why not?

Guess what?

The dude loves it.

“I think he’s having a lot of fun,’’ Maddon says. “I don’t see the same stress I saw on his face as I did last year. Listen at the core of what I try to do here is permit the players to have freedom, be themselves. In return, without even asking, I think you get a greater respect and discipline returned to you.

“I think he enjoys the concept of being free, to being Shohei, and being more in charge of what he’s doing out there. I think he’s really digging it. I believe you’re going to see a greater freedom in his game.

“He’s not going to be concerned about either getting hurt or disappointing somebody. He’s just going to play, just be part of the group.’’

The freedom was revealed in the calmness of his 41-pitch appearance against the Oakland Athletics. He struck out three batters in the first inning with a walk and gave up a double. In the second inning, another two strikeouts, walk and double. He generated five swing-and-misses and wishes he had better success with his slider, but was satisfied overall.

When he walked off the mound, he couldn’t help but smile as the crowd gave him a loud, rousing ovation, thrilled to see him back, and dreaming once again of all that potential.

“I’m definitely having fun,’’ he said. “I had trouble having fun the last couple of years. …The last couple of years, I’ve had some kind of rehab schedule. This year, it’s not like that.’’

The Angels aren’t going to be reckless with Ohtani, who didn't pitch at all in 2019 due to Tommy John surgery, while making only two starts last year with a flexor strain.

They know how vital he is to their success.

The difference now is that he’ll be treated just like anyone else on the team, and if he happens to get hurt, they’ll deal with it like any other injury, with the Angels refusing to create limitations or guidelines.

“We always worry about creating rules to prevent injury,’’ Maddon says. “I’ve always had trouble with that. Of ourse you want to prevent injury. I explained to him that we just need total transparency.

"We want Shohei to be in charge of his own career, let his athleticism take over, and not so much be concerned about getting hurt. He’s done this in the past. He should know himself better than we do.’’

Ohtani certainly took his career in his own hands during the winter. He made drastic changes to his diet. He had blood drawn on a routine basis to learn which foods produced the best results and optimal recovery. He collected data to standardize how his body operates. He wore a band to monitor the stress level on his arm that he still uses.

The Angels certainly have noticed the difference, and have been encouraged with Ohtani’s delivery being much more consistent than a year ago.

“I think he looked good,’’ Maddon said, “he looked calm. The delivery was good, I can’t emphasize that enough.’’

Still, it wasn't a perfect outing. Ohtani needs to throw more strikes. He pitched out of the stretch the entire game, and went deep into the count too often. If this were a regular-season game, he would have been fortunate to pitch five innings.

Be that as it may, the Angels are confident they're finally about to see the best of the man they signed to all the 

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