Ohtani off to flying start with Angels, yet still improving

Los Angeles Angels catcher Martin Maldonado, left, and starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani, of Japan, congratulate each other after the top of the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Sunday, May 20, 2018, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) The most remarkable aspect of the first two months in Shohei Ohtani’s major league career is how the unprecedented has become normal.

After 90 plate appearances and seven starts on the mound for the Los Angeles Angels, a 23-year-old Japanese rookie with no prior experience in the stateside game is not just holding his own, but thriving as both a hitter and pitcher. During the Angels’ just-completed homestand, Ohtani hit his sixth homer of the season during the week between two dominant pitching victories in which he yielded three runs over 14 innings.

Baseball has seen nothing like Ohtani’s expansive ability in decades, yet his fellow Angels and their fans have already accepted the reality of a two-way player doing brilliant things. They’re already wondering what’s next for a youngster who is still learning, growing and striving to do more.

”When he’s on the mound, you forget that he’s a hitter that can smash homers,” second baseman Ian Kinsler said. ”And when he’s jogging around the bases after a home run, you forget that he’s one of our best pitchers. So it’s a unique situation, and it’s fun to watch.”

Ohtani has a 100 mph fastball paired with a diabolical split-fingered fastball that has been one of the most effective pitches in baseball. He also has excellent control and two dangerous off-speed pitches, allowing him to post a 3.35 ERA and 52 strikeouts against just 14 walks.

The same human also has a graceful, sweeping swing capable of generating incredible exit velocities and driving baseballs 500 feet off the Angel Stadium scoreboard in batting practice, or putting them into the upper decks at Coors Field . Even after a fairly quiet last week at the plate, he is batting .321 as the Angels’ designated hitter, with 27 hits and 17 RBIs in 24 games.

”I just want to (always) keep learning and getting better,” Ohtani said last week after blasting a late homer in a loss to Tampa Bay. ”I had more bad at-bats than good at-bats tonight. That’s something I have to use as a learning experience.”

Everything about his beginning has been extraordinary, yet Ohtani is still working. His size, strength and athletic skill are obvious, but his hunger to conquer the mental parts of the game impresses his coaches and teammates even more.

Ohtani’s decision to forgo untold millions so he could jump to the U.S. this season indicates his desire to pursue baseball as a passion, not just a profession. He shows that hunger daily in his eagerness to process information provided by the Angels to improve in both his roles.

”There’s a lot on his plate, and he’s making adjustments and he’s doing very well,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. ”He has made some terrific adjustments that I think have helped him to do some of the things we’re seeing.”

For instance, Ohtani’s widely publicized struggles in spring training prompted him to readdress his mechanics at the plate. With help from Angels hitting coach Eric Hinske, he decided to get rid of his pre-pitch leg kick in favor of a subtler toe-tap.

The change happened swiftly, but it made an immediate impact on Ohtani’s swing and his ability to hit inside fastballs, which had been trouble for him in Japan. His consistent performances prompted Scioscia to move Ohtani steadily up the batting order from the No. 8 slot in his opening weeks to the No. 5 and No. 2 holes in recent games.

On the mound, Ohtani is improving his use of all four pitches while honing his already sharp control. His 52 strikeouts have blown past the franchise record for this point in a career, yet Ohtani is more focused on sustained success – such as the 7 2/3 innings he threw last Sunday on 110 pitches.

The Angels have taken a deliberate approach to Ohtani’s development, realizing they’re playing a long game with Ohtani under contractual control for the next six years. Ohtani is starting on the mound just once every seven days, and he’s resting on the days before and after he pitches.

Ohtani’s steadiness and improvements have yet to prompt any acceleration in that process. While Ohtani has expressed occasional interest in hitting more often, and while Scioscia is getting regular questions about whether he’ll allow Ohtani to hit in a game in which he also pitches, the Angels seem content to allow Ohtani to grow naturally.

”The original template that was put together by (general manager) Billy Eppler, I think it’s working fine,” Scioscia said. ”It’s the original template, though. We have to be flexible. I’m sure, at some point, there will be some adjustments to it.”

More AP baseball: www.apnews.com/tags/MLBbaseball