Matthews: Shohei Ohtani May Be The Angels’ Secret Playoff Potion
Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani the baseball player. (Photo: Los Angeles Angels).

Back in 2017, every MLB team knew what Shohei Ohtani might become.

They all knew it — that’s why every team desperately tried to get him back in 2017.

It had been a whirlwind, 30-team courtship that ended up with Ohtani picking seven teams as finalists — and then picking the Angels to the shock of everyone.

For the Angels, Ohtani was the franchise’s equivalent of Howard Carter finding King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1923.

The Angels were unbelievably lucky and they didn’t really know what to do with it.

But you can bet every MLB team would use Ohtani almost exactly the same way the Joe Maddon’s 2021 Angels are doing right now: Maximizing the young Japanese star’s sensational abilities.

Maddon thinks this is Ohtani’s time. Maddon thinks he knows how to open it all up: Just by letting it all go.

It’s all about amplifying Ohtani’s unique, unreal talent, pulling the most out of it, and seeing if Shohei can be the secret potion in getting the Angels — and, shhhhhhh, Mike Trout — back to October baseball.

Just let him go.

“Ohtani is full go,” Maddon said back in February when the Angels opened camp in Tempe. “My God, he looks magnificent.”

Maddon’s only become more certain now that it’s nearly Opening Day. The Halos’ savvy manager knows now is the time to let his one-of-a-kind prodigy blossom in full.

It’s time to take off the kid gloves that the Angels have handled Ohtani with since spring training in 2018. Maddon feels there was a too-cautious approach chosen by former GM Billy Eppler, who landed Ohtani, and his managers Mike Scioscia and Brad Ausmus.

They treated him with kid gloves even after Ohtani pitched like a genius at the start of 2018, got hurt, then raked from the batters’ box with a vengeance that saw him win the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year award.

They had to navigate around Ohtani’s September 2018 Tommy John surgery and other injuries as well, but it was a crawl-don’t-walk approach that was frustrating to both Angels fans and Ohtani himself.

“I’m sure I disappointed a lot of people the last two years by being hurt,” Ohtani said on Sunday. “I’m looking forward to showing everyone what I’m capable of.”

Maddon is a bit more old-school, and he wants to see that too. He wants to see the bud finally burst into full bloom. So he has simple marching orders for Ohtani:

“Go play baseball,” Maddon said. “He’s the athlete. Shohei Ohtani could be one of the greatest players of his generation, given the opportunity.

“Right now, there are no limits.”

He’s the athlete. Shohei Ohtani could be one of the greatest players of his generation. — Angels manager Joe Maddon

You can see the shape of a plan for Ohtani in the way the Maddon is using him so far in spring training, especially in the decision Sunday when Maddon decided to use the two-way star as an actual two-way player in the same game — a move that opened eyes all around MLB.

Maddon had Ohtani batting leadoff Sunday against the San Diego Padres — and Ohtani was also the starting pitcher. It all worked out just fine.

Ohtani went 2-for-2 at the plate and struck out five Padres from the mound, even hitting 101.9 on a pitch to Padres’ hyperstar Fernando Tatis Jr.

There was no reason to believe it wouldn’t go well, in Maddon’s mind.

In fact, there was no reason to doubt it wouldn’t work. Ohtani had proven it himself in 2016.

On July 3, 2016, Ohtani led off, pitched eight shutout innings, and hit a massive home run for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters (you’ve got to dig both the majestic bomb and Ohtani’s majestic gold jersey … and his swagger).

So why did the Angels’ brass doubt?

Maddon doesn’t doubt. He wasn’t Ohtani’s manager in 2016 — Hokkaido’s Hideki Kuriyama was. Maddon would have played him the same way Kuriyama did, and it’s clear Maddon is not managing Ohtani like Scioscia or Ausmus did.

You could see it on Tuesday, when Ohtani was batting leadoff again in order to accumulate at-bats. As the Angels’ DH, Ohtani extended his spring training hitting streak to 10 games. He’s gotten a hit in every game he’s appeared in as a batter.

Max the offensive potential. Max the number of pitches seen and crushed.

All Ohtani has done is go 15 for 25 (.600) with an absurd OPS of 1.701 and a team-leading four homers. He’s stolen two bases as well just for fun.

The homers have been impressive in their own ways.

If pitchers try to avoid Ohtani’s power center, that left-handed stroke just peels off crisp line drives — and a pair of homers this spring — to the opposite field.

Pitchers who know about Ohtani’s opposite-field ability and challenge him in his wheelhouse — well, they’ve paid the price too. Ohtani has launched two massive homers this spring that both easily cleared the batter’s eye in center field, 464 feet and more.

Absolutely mammoth blasts. And that’s just Shohei’s hitting side.

Ohtani won’t pitch again until next week in the Freeway Series against the Dodgers, but you can bet your house that he’ll pitch in one of the games at Chavez Ravine against the boys in blue, and will be batting as the pitcher in that game.

“I don’t want to build in a lot of ‘Shohei Rules’. I want Shohei to go be the baseball player Shohei,” said Maddon.

Max the two-way potential. Max Shohei Ohtani’s talents all the way to October.

Joe Maddon’s lineup from Sunday, March 21, 2021, with Shohei Ohtani batting leadoff and pitching. (Courtesy Los Angeles Angels PR Twitter).

So if you look into the somewhat quixotic way that Maddon has utilized his unique assets in the past — in his first stint as a manager, Maddon lifted up the rundown Tampa Bay Rays into the World Series, and then won it all with the Chicago Cubs in 2016 — you can see a strategy taking shape.

The American League West race is likely to be a razor-thin affair.

The Angels, Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics are all going to be in a dogfight for the division, and it’s anyone’s guess, but 88 wins may be enough to win it.

And Maddon knows that only a couple of extra wins could make the difference between playing baseball in October … or playing golf again like every year since 2014.

Not when you have Shohei Ohtani, who is capable of pitching and hitting in interleague games in National League ballparks.

The “experiment” on Sunday could be a preview of what Maddon might do when the Angels have to hit the road in 2021 and play in NL stadiums — if he can manipulate his starting rotation to make it happen. And you don’t have to blink much to see it.

The schedule is set and this year the Angels will play four interleague series in NL parks:

— Angels at San Francisco Giants (May 31-June 1)
— Angels at Arizona Diamondbacks (June 11-13)
— Angels at Los Angeles Dodgers (August 6-8)
— Angels at San Diego Padres (September 7-8)

If Maddon can wrangle it, he’ll move heaven and earth to have Ohtani pitch a game every one of those series, and in that game he’ll also be swinging that black-lacquered Asics Goldstage bat, that weapon that Ohtani can use so much better than any other pitcher in the National League, Nippon Professional Baseball, or anywhere on earth.

So think about the little things. What if Ohtani gets a couple of base hits and drives in a few runs to help himself as a pitcher?

“I would love to do this during the season,” the understated Ohtani said after his two-way sortie against the Padres on Sunday. “If I could get run support for myself, that will give me extra confidence on the mound to be more aggressive.”

What if Ohtani uses his sprinter’s speed (freakish for a 6-foot-4 man, he’s the fastest runner on the Angels as well) to steal a couple of bases and help his teammates drive him in? What if he mashes a couple of bombs?

Maddon has even spoken about forfeiting the designated hitter spot in order to use Ohtani’s bat in the lineup on days he pitches in American League games, particularly if it was a huge game with the playoffs on the line.

“Why not?” said Maddon, typically open-minded.

Maddon said that would lead off with Ohtani as the pitcher. With 26-man rosters this year, Maddon would have an extra position player available to pinch-hit for the pitcher’s spot after Ohtani exited as the pitcher.

It would be worth it, Maddon said.

“He’s just different,” Maddon said simply. “A different player, different athlete.”

Madison Bumgarner (.177, 19 career homers over 12 years in the National League) has been known a “good-hitting” pitcher throughout his career.

But Shohei Ohtani is an extraordinary hitting pitcher. No one else is close.

Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth with the 1919 Red Sox. (Photo: Getty Images).

The legendary Babe Ruth was close.

But Ruth — the only other two-way star in baseball history — didn’t hit and pitch in the same season often. Ruth’s career path crossed over — he was a frontline pitcher for the Red Sox until he was traded to the Yankees before the 1920 season.

Ruth hit .322 and 29 homers for the 1919 Red Sox, when folks started taking notice of his bat. But the Babe only made 17 starts on the mound for that Red Sox team before his trade to the Yankees. Ruth only pitched in five games in his storied 15-year career with the Yankees.

So no one — not even Babe Ruth — has done what Ohtani is actually doing in 2021, even though in the hype surrounding Ohtani’s arrival in America in 2017, Ohtani was billed as “the Japanese Babe Ruth.”

If Joe Maddon has his way (and he will), and if Ohtani stays healthy (we will pray), he’ll just be Shohei Ohtani — and we’re going to find out exactly how good he can be.

Maddon may be hedging a few years when he’s referring to generational talents — Mike Trout turns 30 on August 7, and Shohei Ohtani will be 27 on July 5. It’s a slim margin for “generations,” but it’s baseball and careers are short.

Like Maddon said, maybe Ohtani can play like the best player of his generation.

And then the 2021 Angels would be playoff-bound.

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