Enjoy this while you can, the days when the very air at Angel Stadium feels full of magical possibilities because Shohei Ohtani is pulling double duty on the pitching mound and at the plate.
Days like Sunday, when he struck out nine and yielded merely two hits to the American League Central division-leading Minnesota Twins in a six-inning performance that was outstanding by every measure beside his own. And that doesn’t take into account his single to center in the first inning and the intentional walk he drew in the fifth inning of the Angels’ eventual 4-2 victory.
With Ohtani’s contract expiring after this season and his ability as a free agent to ask for — and get — not only the moon but maybe a small galaxy, there might not be many more occasions in Anaheim to marvel at the feats he downplayed on Sunday even as his teammates acknowledged they sense history hovering above them when his turn in the rotation comes up.
“Every time,” said left fielder Mickey Moniak, whose two-run double in the seventh inning Sunday gave the Angels a 3-1 lead. “It’s no secret, he’s one of the most special, if not the most special players in baseball and every time he goes out there on the mound, he might go seven shutout [innings], 10 strikeouts, and get three hits, or who knows what’s going to happen?
“But I think it’s definitely special being able to play behind him, and it’s something I’ll be able to talk about one day when I’m old and in a rocking chair.”
Old age is a long ways off for Encinitas native Moniak, who turned 25 earlier this month. But it might take that long for another Ohtani to come along.
Had the Angels built a winning team around Ohtani and Mike Trout, had club executives not just spent a lot of money but spent it well on quality pitching and a better bullpen and in other key areas, it might not seem so inevitable that Ohtani will leave after this season. He wants to win. The Angels haven’t reached the postseason since 2014, four years before he made his major league debut. Sunshine and being near Disneyland probably aren’t big enough attractions for Ohtani to put aside his competitiveness and decide to stay with a losing team.
On Sunday he was diplomatic, as he usually is, when asked about how this year’s Angels (25-23) differ from the team that was 73-89 last season and finished a hopeless 33 games behind division winner Houston.
“There aren’t many losses in which we have no chance to win, so I think that’s the best thing. We play hard until the end and don’t give up,” he said to Japanese reporters. “I think it’s because there’s a good atmosphere. I said this before, but we lost [Saturday] and had plenty of opportunities to win.”
Ohtani’s performance on Sunday gave them a chance to win, though he didn’t get the decision. He reduced his already major league-best opponent batting average to .142 and ranks third in strikeouts (80) and tied for fourth in WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched), at 0.90. He’s 5-1 in 10 starts, but in two of those no-decisions he gave up one run and he gave up no runs to Oakland in his first start, on March 30.
He had a plan against Minnesota, he said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. He went with his cutter more than he had used it in previous starts because he had a good feel for it. Same for his sweeper, which he and catcher Chad Wallach have been adjusting to make both feel comfortable. It will take time for him and Wallach to be on the same page with that pitch, “so I think going forward, should be getting better and better,” Ohtani said.
His effort, if not historic, was an impressive turnaround from his previous four starts, in which he had given up 17 earned runs in 25 innings for an earned-run average of 6.12. His ERA after Sunday was 3.05. Manager Phil Nevin said he wasn’t concerned about Ohtani during that rough stretch.
“I think if you look around the league, a lot of aces, if you will, have gotten into a little bit of trouble as we’ve gotten into May. They’ve had some hiccup outings,” Nevin said. “Shohei’s no different. He’s human. If you look up on the board, I think he’s right around 3 [in ERA]. He’s kept us in games. He’s won five and we’ve won the majority of games that he’s pitched so, no, not worried at all.”
In the meantime, each appearance by Ohtani carries the extra resonance of likely being among his last in an Angels uniform.
“Any time he’s on the field there’s a chance of something special happening, to be honest,” Wallach said. “That’s just how good of a player he is.”
Enjoy him as an Angel while you still can.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.