Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 18: Shohei Ohtani comes to America

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

A lot of Japanese baseball players have made their mark in Major League Baseball in the past couple of decades. Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Masahiro Tanka and Yu Darvish have dominated, dozens of others have starred, and over 100 have made it on to big league rosters over the years. None, however, are quite like Shohei Ohtani, late of the Nippon Ham Fighters.

For one thing, not many of them were scouted by U.S. teams in high school and tempted to eschew Japanese baseball altogether like Ohtani was. He resisted that urge and chose to play in Japan, but it was thought of as only a matter of time before he sought to be posted to play in the United States. The thought was correct, as he’s now U.S.-bound at the age of only 23.

The bigger reason he was not like his predecessors is that his skills are truly unique. Ohtani is known as “The Japanese Babe Ruth” for his prowess as both a pitcher and a hitter. He has a fastball that has hit 102 miles per hour before and he routinely sits in the high 90s. He’s also an outstanding slugger who hits for both power and average. While his 2017 season was truncated due to injuries, in 2016 he posted a 1.86 ERA, struck out 174 guys in 140 innings across 21 games and hit .322/.416/.588 with 27 home runs as a designated hitter. Baseball hasn’t seen a two-way player like that since The Bambino, and even then Ruth gave up pitching after joining the Yankees in 1920, making only five more appearances on the mound after that, mostly as a gimmick or to mop up a mess.

Ohtani, however, has every intention of continuing to both pitch and hit. All of which made his journey to America fairly interesting.

Once he was officially posted by Nippon Ham on December 1, it was reported that Ohtani’s agents had sent a questionnaire to teams interested in signing him, asking them to detail how, exactly, they’d use Ohtani. Only one team — the Mariners — went public in saying that they’d let him pitch while allowing him to DH a couple of times a week. Other teams, anonymously, groused about having to answer the questionnaire, thinking it an insult and/or that Ohtani had already chosen where he wanted to play but was making them jump through hoops anyway. Given that current Collective Bargaining Agreement placed a severe cap on how much Ohtani could be paid, the grousing seemed particularly petty. If you can get an all-world talent for less than the price of a utility infielder, you jump through some hoops at the chance, right?

Ultimately, Ohtani chose the Los Angeles Angels. At the press conference introducing him, manager Mike Scioscia was somewhat vague about how he planned to use Ohtani on days he wasn’t pitching, but said that he definitely intended to allow him to both hit and pitch. We’ll see in a couple of months how, exactly, that will play out.

In the meantime, there continues to be some drama around Ohtani. Soon after his signing, someone with knowledge of his medical information — likely someone who works for a team that was unsuccessful in the Ohtani Sweepstakes and who was suffering from sour grape poisoning — leaked to Yahoo Sports that Ohtani has a partial tear in his elbow ligament. It is thought to be a minor injury and Ohtani is said to be able to pitch at full strength despite the ailment. Major League Baseball is investigating the leak and will likely punish whoever it is who released the confidential medical information.

Until then we wait for mid-February, when Ohtani — and scores of Japanese reporters and photographers — descend on Tempe, Arizona and Angels spring training to see if he can live up to the monumental hype.

Swanson, Olson go deep vs Scherzer, Braves take NL East lead

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ATLANTA — Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson homered off Max Scherzer, lifting the Atlanta Braves to a crucial 4-2 victory Saturday night over the New York Mets and a one-game lead in the NL East.

The defending World Series champions beat aces Jacob deGrom and Scherzer on consecutive nights to take their biggest lead of the season in the division. New York, which held a 10 1/2-game cushion on June 1, faces its biggest deficit of the year with four games remaining.

Atlanta will try for a three-game sweep Sunday night, with the winner earning the season-series tiebreaker between the teams. Even though both teams are headed to the postseason, that’s important because the NL East champion gets a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Swanson’s 24th homer, a go-ahead, two-run shot in the fifth inning, touched off a frenzy among the sold-out crowd at Truist Park, the ball sailing a few rows up into the seats in left-center to make it 3-2. Olson hit his 32nd homer in the sixth, a solo shot into Chop House seats in right to put Atlanta up 4-2.

Austin Riley led off the fourth with a double and scored on Olson’s single to make it 1-all.

Kyle Wright (21-5) gave up two runs and seven hits with one walk and three strikeouts in five innings as he won his eighth straight decision. The Braves have won 16 of his last 17 starts.

New York went up 2-1 in the fifth when Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil hit consecutive two-out singles.

The Mets led 1-0 in the first when Brandon Nimmo singled, advanced on a walk and a single and scored on Eduardo Escobar‘s groundout. Wright, who threw 30 pitches in the first, stranded two runners in scoring position to prevent further damage.

Scherzer (11-5) allowed a first-inning single to Riley and a third-inning infield single to Ronald Acuna Jr., who advanced to third on a fielding error by Lindor at shortstop but was stranded when Michael Harris II lined out to center. Scherzer patted his glove and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

Scherzer was charged with nine hits and four runs with no walks and four strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings as the Mets were knocked out of first place for only the third day all season.

The Braves have won five of the last six against New York to tie the season series 9-all, outscoring the Mets 37-16 over that stretch.

Atlanta’s bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA in September, got a perfect inning from Dylan Lee in the sixth. Jesse Chavez faced four batters in the seventh, Raisel Iglesias faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his NL-leading 39th save in 46 chances.

Since the Braves were a season low-tying four games under .500 at 23-27 after play on May 31, they have gone 76-32, tying the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the majors over that span. They were a season-worst 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets on June 1.

Wright, the only 20-game winner in baseball this season, hasn’t officially become the first Braves pitcher to lead the league in wins outright since Russ Ortiz had 21 in 2003, but the Dodgers’ Julio Urias has 17 and can’t reach 20 before the regular season ends.

Wright will become the first Braves pitcher since Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in 2000 to lead the majors in wins. Houston ace Justin Verlander also has 17.

Wright began the game 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA in six career starts and one relief appearance against the Mets.

The Braves, who got homers from Riley, Olson and Swanson off deGrom on Friday, lead the NL with 240 homers.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. Manager Buck Showalter said Marte is experiencing less pain but not enough to take the next step in his recovery. Marte has been sidelined since Sept. 7.

Braves: RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique. Manager Brian Snitker said there is no timetable for the rookie’s return. Strider has been sidelined since Sept. 21.

NICE GLOVE

Harris ran back and jumped to catch Nimmo’s fly against the wall in center field for the first out of the third.

UP NEXT

Mets RHP Chris Bassitt (15-8, 3.27 ERA) will face RHP Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.29) as the teams conclude a three-game series.