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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2018 — No. 4: Shohei Ohtani, two-way threat

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We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. 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.

Shoehi Ohtani’s posting and signing late in 2017 was a big story last year, but it paled compared to the impact he had in 2018.

The hope was that Ohtani would be a fine major league pitcher who would spot in at DH once between starts and provide some occasional pop. In the event, the fine pitching was more than fine and the hitting was far better than anyone expected. He was a true two-way threat, the likes of which baseball has not seen in a century when Babe Ruth played both ways for the Boston Red Sox.

At the outset it didn’t look like it’d be that way. Ohtani struggled early in spring training, looking lost at the plate in Arizona. Once the season began, however, he turned it on, hitting .341/.383/.682 with four homers as the Angels’ DH in the first month of the season. He likewise turned heads as a pitcher early, striking out 12 in seven one-hit shutout innings against the Oakland Athletics on April 8, showcasing electric stuff. Not all of his outings were that good, of course, but the mere fact that he was making them while hitting a high level was unprecedented in living memory.

As the season wore on, the hitting continued to be exceptional and, actually, improved and, overall, his rookie year was tremendous. He posted a batting line of .285/.361/.564 (152 OPS+) with 22 home runs — 13 of them coming in August and September — 61 RBI, 59 runs scored, and 10 stolen bases in 367 plate appearances. On the mound, he went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA (126 ERA+) and a 63/22 K/BB ratio in 51.2 innings. Was that Babe Ruth? No, not exactly. But some argued that it was the equivalent of stapling Boog Powell to a young Tim Lincecum and turning them into one player. Which, eww, but that’s pretty cool!

You know by now, of course, that Ohtani’s season wasn’t all beer and Skittles. He was diagnosed with a sprained UCL in early June and that put his pitching on ice for a couple of months. With the exception of a single two-inning outing in September he simply stopped pitching and worked mostly full-time as a DH. Ohtani finally underwent Tommy John surgery after the season and will not pitch again until 2020. He is expected, however, to be able to hit more or less full time in the coming year.

The second coming of Babe Ruth? Not exactly, but that was always an unreasonable ask. He was something just as rare, though, and that made Shohei Ohtani‘s debut season a big, big story.

Nationals GM Rizzo won’t reveal length of Martinez’s new contract

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WASHINGTON — Dave Martinez spoke Saturday about managing the Washington Nationals for “many, many years” and over the “long term” and “quite some time,” thanks to his contract extension.

Sharing a table to a socially distanced degree with his manager on a video conference call to announce the new deal – each member of the duo sporting a 2019 World Series ring on his right hand – Nationals GM Mike Rizzo referred to the agreement’s “multiyear” nature, but repeatedly refused to reveal anything more specific in response to reporters’ questions.

“We don’t talk about terms as far as years, length and salaries and that type of thing. We’re comfortable with what we have and the consistency that we’re going to have down the road,” said Rizzo, who recently agreed to a three-year extension of his own. “That’s all we want to say about terms, because it’s private information and we don’t want you guys to know about it.”

When Martinez initially was hired by Rizzo in October 2017 – his first managing job at any level – the Nationals’ news release at the time announced that he was given a three-year contract with an option for a fourth year.

That 2021 option had not yet been picked up.

“The partnership that Davey and I have together, our communication styles are very similar. Our aspirations are similar, and kind of our mindset of how to obtain the goals that we want to obtain are similar. I think it’s a good match,” Rizzo said. “We couldn’t have hit on a more positive and enthusiastic leader in the clubhouse. I think you see it shine through even in the most trying times.”

The Nationals entered Saturday – Martinez’s 56th birthday – with a 23-34 record and in last place in the NL East, which Rizzo called “a disappointing season.” The team’s title defense was slowed by injuries and inconsistency during a 60-game season delayed and shortened by the coronavirus pandemic.

World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg threw just five innings because of a nerve issue in his pitching hand and players such as Starlin Castro, Sean Doolittle, Tanner Rainey, Adam Eaton and Carter Kieboom finished the year on the IL.

“This year, for me, we didn’t get it done. We had a lot of bumps in the road this year. But I really, fully believe, we’ve got the core guys here that we need to win another championship,” Martinez said. “I know Mike, myself, we’re going to spend hours and hours and hours trying to fill the void with guys we think can potentially help us in the future. And we’ll be back on the podium. I’m really confident about that.”

Rizzo was asked Saturday why the team announces contract lengths for players, as is common practice around the major leagues, but wouldn’t do so in this instance for Martinez.

“The reason is we don’t want anybody to know. That’s the reason,” Rizzo said, before asking the reporter: “How much do you make? How many years do you have?”

Moments later, as the back-and-forth continued, Rizzo said: “It’s kind of an individual thing with certain people. I don’t want you to know what I make or how many years I have. Davey doesn’t want you to know. And I think that it’s only fair … when people don’t want certain information out there, that we don’t give it.”

There were some calling for Martinez to lose his job last season when Washington got off to a 19-31 start. But Rizzo stood by his manager, and the team eventually turned things around, going 74-38 the rest of the way to reach the playoffs as an NL wild-card team.

The Nationals then beat the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals to reach the World Series, where they beat the Houston Astros in Game 7.

Washington joined the 1914 Boston Braves as the only teams in major league history to win a World Series after being 12 games below .500 during a season.

“Everything from Day 1 to where he’s gotten to now, he’s grown so much. He’s really become one of my favorite managers of all,” three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer said after helping Washington win Saturday’s opener of a doubleheader against the New York Mets. “Davey really understands how to manage a clubhouse, manage a team. We saw it in the postseason. He knows how to push the right buttons when everything is on the line.”