(Photo Credit: USA Today Sports)
By Joshua Nord – @nordjoshua
I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in the baseball era that I did. The tail end of the steroid era where you could still tune in to see Barry Bonds launch nukes, and Roger Clemens’ power heaters past any hitter. It was a sensational time where baseball was big both in the players themselves and the stats they put up.
Regardless of your opinion on juicing, I still consider that dual between Eric Gagne and Barry Bonds in 2004 to be the peak of major league baseball and no amount of allegations can change my mind. During those younger years, my favorite player wasn’t a juicer. He wasn’t even on the Red Sox. In fact, he was just a small guy who played 3,000 miles away in Seattle, who had previously traveled all the way across the Pacific ocean with big ambitions and set the baseball world on fire. Ichiro Suzuki, he was and still is my all time favorite player. To the rest of the league you couldn’t help but think of him as an underdog. Even as he dominated night after night, season after season. Ichiro was a joy to watch, was an absolute game changer, and it was my pleasure to be able to watch him a few times in person at Fenway Park.
However, his article isn’t about him. It’s about another Japanese phenom in a similar situation. If you are not familiar thus far, then you’re in for a treat. Shohei Ohtani. The 23 year old, dubbed “The Japanese Babe Ruth,” bucked all conventional wisdom the moment he declared he would sign with a major league club before the end of his contract with the Japanese league. Thus restricting his payday to only a fraction of would have been a couple years later.
The 6’4 lefty agreed to a minor league contract, proving that his desire to play baseball in America was purely because of a dream, and not money. Ohtani came over here not to play where the spotlight was but to bring it to wherever he went. And knowing that spotlight would become intense since he had ace-like pitching ability and raw hitting power. An overall talent so rare, it hasn’t been seen in over a century.
The young Japanese star chose the Los Angeles Angels as his new home. A team just a few pieces away from contention. A team which has a high powered lineup begging to experience a deep run in the postseason once again. A team that for much of its existence had lived in the shadow of it’s older and more successful California brothers. A team who recognized a star who needed a home.
Choosing the Angels wasn’t easy. Shohei was blasted for not being patient, and derided for not wanting the chance to play for the Yankees or Cubs. So when the Japanese wonderkid struggled in spring training, he quickly became a laughing stock. A bust of epic proportions. His pitches were crushed by opposing hitters, and he looked so lost at the plate that major league scouts said his performance would never get him to the majors.
The Angels and Ohtani were in dire straights as the baseball season began. But as is common in a sport like this, the improbable happened, like it does so often. Ohtani has been electric to start the year on both sides of the game. He’s gone deep into games and with a high strikeout rate. His fastball touching a hundred miles per hour at times. His at-bats have turned him into one of the most feared hitters early into the season. In just eight games, Ohtani has gone deep three times, eleven runs batted in, and hitting to a .367/.424/.767 clip at DH with longtime veteran Albert Pujols. The difference between the two are night and day. Ohtani dominates even ace pitchers, most notably two time Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber.
From the mound, he has a 2.08 ERA with 18 strikeouts to begin the year. His other worldly performance has landed him squarely into the race of projected award winners, which are likely to include established American League titans such ad Chris Sale and Justin Verlander.
Ohtani is set to square off against David Price in what could be an epic dual on Tuesday night. A true test of his pitching ability awaits him with this murderous Red Sox lineup.
It’s a young season, and he’s a young player. Anything can happen, but whether you’re a die-hard Angels fan who is clinging to the hope of another ring, a fan of a different team, or have never cared to watch more than a few innings, the first game of this series is a must see.
Shohei is electric, and most importantly, he’s intruiging. Just like Ichiro was all those years ago.