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Nightengale: Shohei Ohtani, Angels Undaunted by Rocky Spring

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Los Angeles Angels' Shohei Ohtani, of Japan, watches his base hit off Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Colin Poche during the sixth inning of a spring baseball game in Tempe, Ariz., Tuesday, March 20, 2018. Photo: AP Photo/Chris Carlson

By Bob Nightengale |

The dozens of reporters who stake out the Los Angeles Angels’ parking lot each morning, awaiting Shohei Ohtani’s arrival, staring at him while he dresses, dissecting every movement on the field, and asking him to evaluate his performance each game, aren’t around this evening.

It’s a promotional event, set up by an autograph trading card company, Panini America, which holds his rights in that space. If you want to talk to Ohtani, provided a rare one-on-one interview, you have 15 minutes to get your questions in while sitting in a private room in the back of a swanky resort.

Now, granted a limited peek, you find out he has no hobby except for those occasional golf outings with teammate Blake Wood, where on a good day, he may shoot 100. He loved meeting teammates Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, but his lifelong idol is Ichiro Suzuki. He would treasure the experience of facing him, and even bat against him, if Suzuki is serious about taking the mound.

The worst moment of camp was when Trout, pitcher Andrew Heaney and himself lost to his own interpreter, trainer and staff member in a 3-on-3 pickup basketball game. His favorite evening? A night golfing event set up by Trout. He couldn’t understand why most of the Angels’ morning meetings resembled a stand-up comedy show led by manager Mike Scioscia, and now he gets the humor, finds them hysterically funny.

That’s it. Nothing deep. He doesn’t share why he picked the Angels over his other six finalists. He won’t detail his decision to forgo a potential $200 million package by waiting two more years in Japan instead of playing for the minimum $545,000 this season. And forget any idea he’ll disclose anything about his personal life, or even if he plans to get a driver’s license after never bothering with one in Japan.

Ohtani arrived seven weeks ago as baseball’s greatest mystery, a 23-year-old Japanese player trying to become the first player since Babe Ruth in 1919 to be a starting pitcher and an everyday player.

He’ll leave spring training camp this weekend shrouded in the same mystery, with rival teams and scouts doubting whether he can even handle either one, predicting that his spring training struggles will leave him in the minors to open the season.

Ohtani does not speak English and barely understands a few words, but as he listens to the scathing criticism, he breaks into a grin, nods his head, and in Japanese would love to shout out to the world:

Mattari Suru Hito.

Loose translation: “Chill out, people.’’

Well, we’ve got a secret for you:

Ohtani isn’t going anywhere.

Ohtani will be on the Angels’ opening-day roster, two high-ranking Angels executives told USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity since no roster decisions need to be revealed until March 29. He’s tentatively scheduled to pitch their third game of the season, March 31, against the Athletics at Oakland Coliseum. He also is scheduled to be in their opening-day lineup as their starting DH.

Ohtani’s roster spot will come in spite of his unsightly 16.20 ERA in two spring-training games, an exhibition against the Tijuana Toros and one minor-league game – yielding 15 earned runs and 18 hits in 8 1/3 innings. He has been worse at the plate, hitting .111 with three singles in 28 at-bats, snapping a 0-for-14 skid on Tuesday with a single to left field.

His struggles have been the talk of all of baseball, with many of those same teams who coveted him now wondering if he can even make it.

It’s enough to make his agent scream, Ohtani to shrug and roll his eyes, and the Angels to vigorously defend him.

“He understands,’’ Ippei Mizuhara, Ohtani’s interpreter, tells USA TODAY Sports. “He realizes how much attention he’s getting. That’s why they’re looking at the spring training stats.

“But it doesn’t bother him. He’s going to keep doing the same thing.

“Really, it is not bothering him.’’

Unless Ohtani is the best actor since Leonardo DiCaprio, the Angels are convinced he is unfazed. He looks the same on the mound whether he’s striking out D.J. LeMahieu on a 98-mph fastball or watching Nolan Arrenado homer over the left-field fence.

Even at the plate, where he puts on a daily show in batting practice with the most power on the team, he hasn’t broken a bat in frustration, let alone cursed in anger at any of his nine strikeouts.

“He’s not panicking, not at all,’’ Angels GM Billy Eppler says. “From a GM or a manager standpoint, that’s comforting.

“When your players are calm, you’re calm, too.’’

Says Angels hitting coach Eric Hinske: “I know the results aren’t there, and his timing is off, but the kid is super positive. He hasn’t lost any of that swag. Once the lights turn, and the third deck shows up, he should show what he’s all about.’’

Pitching coach Charles Nagy says: “He’s healthy, the ball is coming out of his hand just fine, and he hasn’t missed a turn. Look, I never had the best spring training either. I had my ass handed to me a lot. But I knew I’d be ready when the season starts, just like Shohei will.’’

Still, the Angels aren’t going to lie to you, there is concern. They see the long, slow swing with his hands high in the air, power pitchers who are dominating him, and those unsettling him with inside fastballs. They see the inconsistency of his breaking pitches while on the mound, noticing that when he gets into trouble, he tends to throw softer than harder as if he questions his arsenal.

As they remind themselves each morning in their staff meetings, it is only spring training. It’s the same spring training where 17 years ago Ichiro Suzuki was a struggling rookie hearing the same scouting criticism, and Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella questioning whether he would ever hit. The same spring training where the Milwaukee Brewers wondered if they should release Nori Aoki. The same spring where the Los Angeles Dodgers doubted whether Hideo Nomo could be successful at the big-league level.

Now, here we are again, playing meaningless exhibition games, and rival scouts are questioning Ohtani’s ability, wondering whether the Babe Ruth of Japan will become the Ryan Leaf of baseball, an all-time flop.

“There are always going to be doubters,’’ says agent Nez Balelo of Creative Artists Agency. “The head scratcher for me is the organizations and scouts that are doubting him now, that didn’t get him, are the same teams and scouts four months ago telling me he is the next chosen one.”

The Angels still believe, saying they will back their own words with actions. Ohtani, 6-foot-4, 204 pounds, is remaining in the starting rotation, and will pitch once every six or seven days. He will available to be their starting DH three times a week, skipping the days before and after he pitches.

And there is zero talk of telling Ohtani the workload will be too much, forcing him to strictly focus on pitching and give up hitting.

“You don’t recruit the No. 1 quarterback in the United States to go play at the University of Alabama,’’ says Eppler, “and then have him show up and say, “Yeah, you’re working with the defense now.’ You just don’t do that.

“We’ve seen the ability. We’ve seen the track record. We believe that the NTP is the closest of all leagues to Major League Baseball as you can get, and he dominated that league.

“Just like with any player, you give them the opportunity before addressing something.’’

While it has been easy to chastise Ohtani’s performance this spring, many of the scouts who evaluated him in Japan believe he’ll be a star. Sure, maybe he’ll have to give up the hitting one day, particularly with his right pitching hand exposed while batting left handed, but with his arsenal of pitches (95-98 mph fastball, devastating slider, sharp curveball, and split-finger), he could be a perennial All-Star on the mound.

“I don’t like a lot of the negative things being said assessed on his performance here,’’ said one veteran scout who watched him in Japan, speaking on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to publicly discuss scouting reports. “It’s so unfair. He’s young. He’s had zero opportunity to transition. There so many different things here with the mound, the dirt, the size of the ball, the lack of humidity here in Arizona.

“I don’t know whether he’ll hit over here, but I know he can pitch, and he’s going to be a great one.’’

The world will be watching. The Angels, who had 185 media members attend Ohtani’s introductory spring-training press conference, will have about 50 to 65 Japanese reporters covering him on an everyday basis. His first appearance against Ichiro Suzuki – the earliest showdown could be May 4-6 in Seattle – will be a global broadcast event.

“I’m looking forward to it,’’ Ohtani said, “but I still need to make the team and earn my playing time. If one day I’m able to be on the same field as him, that will make me very happy.

“Someone my age, 23, facing Ichiro, that would be a great experience.’’

And if Ohtani lives up to the hype, the Angels will suddenly possess a multi-national star along with the greatest player on the planet.

“It’s going to be a pretty crazy year for sure,’’ says Trout, the two-time MVP. “He just gives off these great vibes. I know it’s going to be tough on him doing both things, but I think he’s going to wow us.

“Really, I think he’ll wow everyone.’’

The warm-act may have been tough on the ears, and, of course, the eyes, but in a week, Shohei Time starts for real.

“This is everything I always wanted,’’ Ohtani says. “Hopefully, I can make people happy.’’

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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