Back with Angels, Ohtani ‘fine-tuning’ for opener

MLB

TEMPE, Ariz. — It was back to business as usual for Shohei Ohtani on Friday.

The two-way star returned to Los Angeles Angels camp after his MVP performance in the World Baseball Classic. Three days after striking out Mike Trout to clinch the WBC title for Japan against the United States in Miami, Ohtani was on the back fields in Tempe, pitching in a minor league game against some Arizona Diamondbacks farmhands.

Friday’s outing was to keep Ohtani on schedule for his Opening Day start next Thursday in Oakland. He faced 19 batters, walking one and striking out eight. He allowed four hits, including a home run to Gavin Conticello, an eighth-round draft pick for Arizona in 2021.

One of the other two singles was by Druw Jones, the Diamondbacks’ first-round pick last season and the son of 10-time Gold Glove center fielder Andruw Jones.

“The game today was to get up to my pitch count, get used to the pitch clock again and using the PitchCom,” Ohtani said through an interpreter after throwing 78 pitches. “All is well on my end.”

“I felt like with all the pitches and all the intensity of the Classic, I was already ready for Opening Day. Today was just fine-tuning stuff, getting used (to the new rules),” he said.

Ohtani only made one start for the Angels before leaving for Japan, for whom he pitched 9 2/3 innings with a 1.86 ERA in three WBC appearances. The last outing was Tuesday’s ninth-inning appearance against the United States, where he fanned Trout on a full-count slider to set off a celebration.

The party was short-lived though, as Ohtani returned to his MLB team on Wednesday so he could begin preparing for the regular season — after which the 28-year-old will be a free agent. He was runner-up in the American League MVP voting after hitting 34 homers and driving in 95 runs for the Angels last season, plus posting a 2.33 ERA in 28 starts with a 15-9 record.

He didn’t bat Friday, but Angels manager Phil Nevin said Ohtani will be the Angels’ DH for the three games in the Freeway Series in Los Angeles against the Dodgers beginning Sunday that will conclude the exhibition season. Trout, who did not return to Arizona after the WBC, will meet the Angels there.

Tuesday’s relief appearance was on a day he was scheduled for a between-starts side session in the bullpen. It just happened to come on the big stage.

Nevin said he watched his two superstars go head to head “just like any other fan.” He was ready to see Ohtani close.

“I wasn’t worried about him at all,” Nevin said. “We had that planned all along. I just wasn’t able to relay that to you guys yet. We knew that was a possibility. I trust him and I trust that he knows his body as well as anybody.”

As for Ohtani, the excitement was something he hadn’t felt in a long time, as the Angels have not been contenders despite the efforts of Ohtani and Trout.

“First time pitching in a playoff atmosphere like that since my days in Japan,” Ohtani said. “I’ve never experienced a World Series, but I guess it would be something similar.”

Nevin said he would be tempted to use Ohtani in relief in the same way if the Angels were able to get into the postseason.

“I got a lot of texts … who am I rooting for, how am I feeling,” the manager said. “I can tell you exactly what I was feeling. I was feeling that this is the greatest game in the world. There’s no other sport, no other situation that can create that kind of drama and atmosphere, one on one, the two best players in the world. It’s what makes our game great.”

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