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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.

Baseball returns: Mariners beat the Athletics in the first official game of the season

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I wake up super early almost every morning. Today was no exception. Unlike most days, however, I had more to look at than my cats and more to do than wait for the sunrise: there was baseball — baseball that counted — on my TV. The Mariners took on the A’s in the Tokyo Dome at 5:30AM — which was 6:30PM, Japan time — in the first official regular season game of the year.

As far as games go it was light on the pitching and, a few dingers aside, was light on excitement, with the Mariners beating the A’s 9-7. But hey, less-than-exciting baseball is better than most things, right?

Oakland jumped out to an early lead thanks to a two-out first inning homer by Stephen Piscotty off of M’s starter Marco Gonzalez. The A’s added a second run in the second thanks to a Chad Pinder single, a throwing error which advanced him to third and a Marcus Semien RBI single.

The top of the third provided some chills: Ichiro, batting ninth for Seattle, came to bat with no one out and a runner on first, facing A’s starter Mike Fiers. Flashbulbs popped and the Tokyo Dome crowd chanted his name. He popped out to the second baseman who caught it in shallow right, sadly, but still got an ovation as he walked to the dugout. One of the more exciting and emotional F4s you’ll see.

At that point the pitching took a powder. Dee Gordon would single in Tim Beckham later that inning to make the game 2-1, the M’s would load the bases and Domingo Santana would hit one out to the opposite field for a grand slam to make it 5-2. In the bottom of the third Khris Davis came up and hit a two-run blast to make it 5-4. They say the pitchers are ahead of the hitters early in the year but, uh, nah. By the way, it was the third straight Opening Day on which Davis has homered. The record is four. Mark your calendars for next year.

Ichiro came up again in the top of the fourth, again with a runner on first, this time facing Liam Hendriks instead of Fiers. He worked a 3-1 count, fouled one off to bring the count full, fouled one off his ankle, which looked like it hurt, fouled one that bounced off his back or arm or something which also looked like it hurt, and then took one in the dirt to draw the walk. Again, a bigger cheer than you get for most walks. Later in the inning Mitch Haniger hit a sac fly to make it 6-4.

The Mariners took the field for the bottom of the fourth. Before the inning began, M’s manager Scott Servais signaled to Ichiro in right, who came running back to the dugout. He was being taken out of the game, replaced by Jay Bruce, who moved out from first base, in such a way as to allow his teammates to give him hugs and to allow the Tokyo crowd to give Ichiro a standing ovation. A nice move from Servais. An 0-for-1, 1BB night on what may very well be the future Hall of Famer’s penultimate game.

Things sort of got out of hand after that. The M’s added three runs in the fifth, two of which came on a Beckham homer. It gave us our first bat flip of the season:

At that point my kids left for school and my wife left for work and the game sort of blended into the background of the morning. Matt Chapman hit a three-run bomb for the A’s in the 7th to make it 9-7, which is a score more appropriate for the glorified spring training game this truly was than a regular season tilt, but such is life. And that, after a couple of scoreless innings, was the ballgame.

It was a game that, in the grand scheme of things, means nothing beyond the stats it created and the smallest of small impacts it will have on season standings that will almost certainly not turn on this game. Which is to say it didn’t matter all that much. It was not a big event. It did not change our day nor impact it beyond the moments of enjoyment and amusement it gave us as it unfolded. It did not insist upon itself like so many games in other sports, TV shows and news events which unfold seem so hellbent on doing.

It just happened. As baseball, when it’s at its best, simply does. Welcome back.