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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.

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Yankees 13, Rays 5: The Yankees scored seven runs in the sixth inning thanks in part to five walks issued that frame by Tampa Bay pitchers. Thairo Estrada, who I had literally never heard of before reading his name in the box score, had a pinch hit three-run double. That’s just how things are going for the Yankees right now. They could lose basically anyone to an injury, put your aunt Tillie in the lineup and she’d go 3-for-5 to lead the Bombers to victory. As it is New York takes two of three from the Rays — a week after taking two of three from them down in Florida — and takes possession of first place in the American League East.

Marlins 3, Mets 0: Let’s leave the woe is Mets stuff to posts specifically about that and instead focus on just how nice an outing Marlins starter Sandy Alcántara had. He tossed a Maddux, shutting out the Mets on only 89 pitches, allowing only two hits while striking out eight and walking only one guy. The whole game took only one hour and fifty-nine minutes, which made me double check to make sure it didn’t take place in 1937 or something. Curtis Grandrson, who I am pretty sure was playing in 1937, homered for Miami. The Fish came into the series with a seven-game losing streak but swept the Mets in three. The final two games were shutouts with Saturday night’s being a one-hitter. New York has lost five in a row.

Red Sox 4, Astros 3: Houston was staked to a 3-1 lead after three but Michael Chavis‘ homer made it 3-2, Xander Bogaerts singled in a run to tie things up in the fifth and then he doubled in a run in the seventh to put Boston up for good. Mookie Betts had three hits and scored three times as the Sox broke the Astros’ ten game winning streak. George Springer left the game in the fifth due to a stiff back. Been there. Ballplayers: they’re just like us!

Phillies 7, Rockies 5: Before I get to this game I want to share something. As some of you might know, I did some family research a couple of years back and discovered all kinds of bloody drama on my mom’s side of the family. That was certainly fun. Yesterday, realizing I know almost nothing about my dad’s side of the family, I decided to go on Ancestry.com and see what I could see. I got lost in all of that stuff for hours and managed to trace back one direct line that, before I shut down to go to dinner, stretched back to England in the late 1500s. That line got to America in the mid-1600s and settled for two generations in . . . Philadelphia. They left by the early 1700s, but I’ve decided that, in the ultimate heel-turn for anyone who remembers how much I used to roast Phillies fans on this blog circa 2009-10, I am going to claim Philadelphia heritage, start calling everything a “jawn” and get super defensive to the point of insanity anytime anyone even suggests that I’m acting obnoxious. Especially, you know, when I’m actually acting obnoxious. Don’t like it? I don’t care. I’ll boo you and then throw a battery at you. Hey, don’t say anything to me. I’m (kinda) from Philly, buddy, and you just don’t get it. Don’t tase me.

As for this jawn, Bryce Harper homered for the second straight day, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run shot in the sixth and driving in three. He woke the hell up against Rockies pitching this weekend, going 5-for-12 with two homers and six driven in in the three-game set and leading Philly to the sweep.

Indians 10, Orioles 0: Shane Bieber went the distance, tossing a five-game shutout while striking out fifteen O’s batter. Mercy. I know Baltimore is kinda like a Quadruple-A team in a lot of respects but that’s still a hell of an outing. He struck out Chris Davis and Dwight Smith Jr. four times a piece. He had plenty of support here too. Carlos Santana homered, Mike Freeman hit a two-run double and Oscar Mecardo, Carlos González, Roberto Pérez and José Ramirez also drove in runs. Cleveland takes three of four. Baltimore has lost nine of eleven games.

Dodgers 8, Reds 3: Hyun-Jin Ryu shut the Reds out over seven innings to extend his scoreless innings streak to 31. He allowed five hits and issued one walk while striking out five. His ERA is now 1.52. Alex Verdugo drove in three, Russell Martin added a solo homer and Cody Bellinger homered as well and he’s now hitting .405/.485/.791 and is on a 57 homer, 149 RBI pace. I think I said something last week about Christian Yellich looking to repeat as NL MVP but he’s gonna need a big Bellinger slump to make that happen.

Brewers 3, Braves 2: Ben Gamel led off the 10th inning with a solo homer to give the Brewers the lead and, ultimately, the win. All five runs in this game came on solo shots with Yelich and Keston Hiura going deep for Milwaukee and Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman hitting ’em out for Atlanta. Freeman has homered in four straight games. Those two homers were all Milwaukee starter Brandon Woodruff allowed, scatting five hits over eight innings of work. The Braves lost but they did get some good news as Mike Foltynewicz himself allowed only two runs over six which, given how he’s been shelled of late, was a good sign.

Blue Jays 5, White Sox 2: This one was tied at one heading into the eighth but the Jays plated a pair in each of the last two innings to earn a split of the four-game set. Vlad Guerrero Jr. is getting hot. He homered — his fourth homer in six games — and is 7-for-21 with nine RBI over those six.

Rangers 5, Cardinals 4: Dexter Fowler homered in the ninth to force extras and Paul DeJong hit a sac fly in the tenth to put the Rangers’ back against the wall, but the Rangers rallied with Willie Calhoun singling in Rougned Odor in the bottom half to tie things up and Nomar Mazara hitting a walkoff sac fly to end the game. Texas took two of three from St. Louis, has won four of five overall. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have lost five straight series and haven’t won back-to-back games since taking five April 30/May 1.

Giants 3, Diamondbacks 2: Pablo Sandoval‘s tenth inning pinch-hit homer gives the Giants the W. Fun fact: Sandoval, despite being given up for dead not all that long ago, posting a line of .300/.326/.675 and is on a 25-homer pace despite not playing full time. Every team has to have an All-Star representative. My guess is that it’ll be some rando reliever, but if Dave Roberts has any sense of fun he’ll pick Sandoval. Both because it’d make a good story but also because Sandoval gets a $50,000 bonus if he makes an All-Star team and the Boston Red Sox, still paying on that five-year deal they gave him, would have to pay it.

Royals 5, Angels 1: Danny Duffy allowed one run over six to help the Royals salvage one in this three-game set and snap their four-game losing streak. According to the AP story, Duffy’s father was in the stands, “as part of the team trip for Royals dads.” I’m picturing an entire section of the stadium just rotten with shiny white New Balances, jean shorts, tucked-in t-shits, unnecessary belts and transition lenses.

Pirates 6, Padres 4: Colin Moran hit a three-run homer and El Cajon native Joe Musgrove pitched into the seventh to get the win. I added that bit because I really like to say “El Cajon.” It’s a very satisfying city/boulevard name to say.

Mariners 7, Twins 4: Edwin Encarnacion hit a three-run homer and Mitch Haniger and Daniel Vogelbach hit back-to-back shots to end the M’s three-game skid. Yusei Kikuchi allowed one earned run in six, striking out six.

Cubs 6, Nationals 5: The Cubs led 6-1 after their half of the six but a three-run homer from Anthony Rendon and a solo shot from Howie Kendrick made things close by the seventh. Joe Maddon called on Steve Cishek that inning and he stayed in the rest of the game, snagging a two-and-a-third inning save, which is not something you see much of these days. That’s some John Hiller stuff there. Don’t know who John Hiller is? Educate yourself, man. The guy had multiple heart attacks one offseason but still came back and, two years later, put up one of the best seasons ever recorded by a relief pitcher. He was unstoppable. He was like the John Wick of 1970s relief pitchers. Yet, somehow, hardly anyone talks about the guy.

Athletics 5, Tigers 3 — SUSPENDED:

Well I don’t know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain’t right,
I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair,
And I’m wondering how I’ll get down the stairs,
Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you