LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Los Angeles Angels have made it their mission to shield Japanese rookie Shohei Ohtani from overexposure in the early season, but as the two-way star proves his worth he may be forcing the team to loosen the reins on those limitations. The 23-year-old Ohtani has thus far over-delivered on the hype that followed his arrival in the major leagues, and in doing so signaled the Angels may need his talent more than he needs the team’s protection.
Ohtani pitched the Angels out of a five-game losing streak on Sunday by tossing career-highs in innings (7 2/3) and pitches thrown (110) to beat Tampa Bay 5-2. It was the second consecutive outing that Ohtani has been allowed to test his limits by surpassing more than 100 pitches.
“What impressed me most is he maintained the pitches and command late in the game,” Angels catcher Martin Maldonado told Reuters.
“We knew that (he could pitch late in games) coming into the season. After we signed him, we saw him pitching in Japan on video and he was going seven and eight innings pretty much every time.
“We know he’s done it in the past.” The Angels, though, have been reluctant to completely unleash the rookie left-hander given his new surroundings and double duties as a designated hitter.
The watchful approach has paid off as Ohtani is hitting .321 with six home runs and 17 runs batted in, while posting a 4-1 record with a 3.35 earned run average on the mound. The problem is, the Angels could use more of their dual threat. Los Angeles (26-21) has lost seven of their last 10 games, and two of those wins came with the ball in Ohtani’s hands.
“Winning is always great,” said Ohtani, his voice rising, after beating the Rays on Sunday. “My job is just to keep the team in the game and give them a chance to win. I think I can build on this outing and build more trust to pitch longer.”
Manager Mike Scioscia is hoping that happens.
“We’re starting to get him stretched out into the game where he’s maintaining his stuff a little bit longer,” Scioscia said. “We’ll see how he rebounds, but hopefully we can get into this range of pitches consistently seeing that he maintained his stuff so well.”
The Angels have gone to a six-man pitching rotation to accommodate Ohtani and ensured that he has seven days between each start.
Ohtani does not bat during pitching days, and is also rested the day before and after pitching starts.
The Angels have also been quick to sideline Ohtani for any sign of physical distress.
He missed action earlier in the season due to a minor ankleinjury and was pulled early from a start because of a blister on a finger.
The organization is equally as calculated in monitoring Ohtani’s environment. Ohtani is only available to media through a postgame press conference, which features his translator Ippei Mizuhara who is often difficult to hear over the rapid shutter of cameras.
Angels staffer Grace McNamee translates manager Scioscia’s comments to the throng of Japanese reporters.
Catcher Maldonado is the team’s unofficial third interpreter, deciphering Ohtani’s pitches for the swell of media. The Angels abandoned caution on Sunday even as Ohtani did not have his best stuff. The young pitcher surrendered a deep home run to Tampa Bay’s Johnny Field in the third inning, then appeared to signal to Maldonado to stay calm.
Ohtani then retired 12 consecutive batters en route to a nine-strikeout day.
Reporting by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by Gene Cherry and Peter Graff