By Bob Nightengale |
The news was gut-wrenching, not just to the Los Angeles Angels, but for all of Major League Baseball.
Angels rookie star Shohei Ohtani, who had captivated the sport with his arm and his bat as the game’s finest two-way player since Babe Ruth, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a sprained elbow, with Tommy John surgery now a distinct possibility.
Ohtani, who would have been the showcase of the All-Star Game, likely becoming the first player to ever hit and pitch at the midsummer event, will be out until at least late July, and that’s only if everything goes well.
If Ohtani’s Grade 2 sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament does not improve in three weeks after undergoing therapy — that included a platelet-rich plasma and stem-cell injection Thursday — he could be out until the 2020 season.
If Ohtani wanted to only be the Angels’ full-time designated hitter, and forego pitching, it’s possible he could return, even if Tommy John surgery is recommended.
For now, it’s not an option that the Angels are even considering.
“I’m not a big fan playing out the hypotheticals and all of the permutations,’’ Angels GM Billy Eppler said. “The multi-dimensional way he contributes, I’m going to take every day as it comes and put him on this course of recovery. Then, in three weeks when we evaluate him, we’ll deal with what we have to deal with.’’
Ohtani, who was living up to every bit of the hype this season, going 4-1 with a 3.10 ERA in nine starts, and hitting .289 with six homers in 114 at-bats, first informed the Angels of his elbow after leaving Wednesday’s start against the Kansas City Royals. He left after four innings, and was having the blister drained, Eppler said, when he informed the trainers that his elbow was getting stiff.
He underwent an MRI that revealed the Grade 2 sprain and didn’t accompany the Angels on their flight to Minnesota.
Now, the Angels can only hold their breath and wait.
Ohtani was originally diagnosed with a Grade 1 sprain last year in Japan. He underwent the platelet-rich plasma and stem-cell injections in October, and had no setbacks. He was throwing 101 mph in his last start and until Wednesday, never mentioned any comfort.
“You’ve seen what he was doing on the mound this year,’’ Eppler said, “so it stands to reason that the injection was helpful.’’
Yet, going from a Grade 1 sprain to a Grade 2 sprain in eight months, with a Grade 3 signifying Tommy John surgery, it’s hard to feel any real sense of optimism.
There’s no one to blame for the injury. The Angels, who have had eight pitchers sustain elbow ligament damage since 2014, treated him with absolute caution all season. He was pitching just once a week. He never was used as a hitter before or after any start.
But now this.
The Angels, publicly and privately, have no idea whether he’ll need Tommy John, or whether he’ll be able to pitch with the injury later this summer.
The baseball landscape is littered with pitchers that have been able to pitch with UCL tears without requiring surgery, including Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees.
So there is hope.
But also fear.
Ohtani will be back, of course, and perhaps sooner than anyone anticipates if everything goes well.
Yet, there’s also the possibility that Ohtani undergoes Tommy John surgery, and when he returns, it’s only as a pitcher, needing all of the rehab to focus on his arm, not his hitting mechanics.
You feel awful for the Angels, a franchise that’s been cursed for decades, with Mike Trout 2 ½ years away from free agency, and still never having won a playoff game.
You feel terrible for Ohtani, 23, who forfeited at least $200 million in free agency by pursuing his major-league dreams two years early instead of waiting until he turned 25 when there would be no international spending limits.
Ohtani is earning just the minimum $545,000 salary, and may never see that kind of money again.
And, of course, you feel horrible for every baseball fan in the world.
You don’t have to be an Angels’ fan to appreciate him, respect him, or revere him.
We can only hope he comes back, as quickly as possible, for our own selfish reasons, because, man, it’s sure fun watching him.