Shohei Ohtani flirted with a perfect game in his home pitching debut on Sunday, retiring the first 19 batters to power the Los Angeles Angels to a 6-1 rout of the Oakland Athletics.
The two-way Japanese sensation is exceeding expectations with his fairytale season as he struck out 12 batters and allowed just one hit over seven shutout innings at Angels Stadium.
Marcus Semien singled to left field to break up the bid for a perfect game, but the 23-year-old rookie kept his cool and hung in there to eventually get the side out and end the inning in front of a crowd of 44,700.
“Especially with how my spring training went, I wasn’t really imagining [the start of the season] to be this good, to be honest,” Ohtani said through a translator.
“I feel better every day. I feel like I’m getting used to everything more and more each day. But it’s just the first week.”
The highly sought after offseason free agent is living up to the Ruthian hype.
Ohtani joined Babe Ruth in the record books, becoming just the third player in league history to hit a home run in three straight games and post a double-digit strikeout game in the same season.
The first to do it was Ruth in 1916 and the other Ken Brett in 1973.
He is also the first major leaguer to record two wins and three home runs in his first 10 games since Jim Shaw in 1919.
Ohtani had performed poorly in spring training, but if there was any doubt he could hit and pitch at the major league level then it was erased this week.
Ohtani blasted three homers between his pitching debut last weekend and his first win at Angel Stadium on Sunday.
He started quickly on Sunday, striking out the side in the first inning on just 15 pitches. He struck out the side again in the fifth inning as only one A’s batter managed to avoid being a strike out victim on the night.
“That’s as good a game as you are going to ever see pitched,” said Angels manager Mike Scioscia.
After yielding the lone hit he eventually struck out Matt Olson to end the seventh inning and celebrated with a scream and a fist pump.
“I wanted to keep a clean zero on the board,” Ohtani said. “One hit would [mean] two runs, and it’s a huge difference. I wanted that strikeout, and I got it.”
Ohtani, who played with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters last season, said this would have been his first no-hitter. Asked how he compares this outing to previous ones he said, “probably my best outing was when I was in elementary school”.
In his pitching debut last Sunday, he allowed three runs on a second-inning homer by third baseman Matt Chapman, but that was his only blemish in the 7-4 victory.
Home run hero
Since then, Ohtani moved to designated hitter for games on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and homered in all three in dramatic fashion.
His three-run blast in his first at-bat in front of the Angels Stadium home crowd lifted Los Angeles to a 6-2 lead against the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday, and they eventually won 13-2.
The next day, he hit a game-tying two-run homer off two-time AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber in the fifth inning, and the Angels went on to win 3-2 in 13 innings.
After an off day on Thursday, Ohtani belted a 449-foot solo home run to centre field with two outs in the second inning and Los Angeles rallied from a huge deficit to win 12-9.
Angels third baseman Zack Cozart said Ohtani also has a variety of pitching weapons.
“His splitter just kind of drops off the table,” Cozart said. “It looks like a strike I feel like almost every time, but it never is. It just drops below the zone. That’s how it comes out, the same as his fastball. It makes it tough as a hitter.”