OAKLAND, Calif. -- One down, hopefully many to go.
Japan's two-way baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani nailed down his first major league win on April 1 with an impressive but imperfect start for the Los Angeles Angels against the hometown Oakland Athletics, giving up three runs on three hits and striking out six over six frames. However, the 23-year-old finished strong, downing 14 of the last 15 batters he faced, all to the cheers of LA fans that had made the trip to Oakland.
His performance was notable for another reason. According to the Angels, with his 1-for-5 showing as the team's designated hitter on March 29, Ohtani became the first major league player in 99 years to start as a non-pitcher on Opening Day and then as a pitcher within the first 10 games of the season. The last person to do it was Babe Ruth, for the 1919 Red Sox.
The moment Ohtani stepped onto the mound beneath a big blue sky at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum on April 1 must have been a special one, the culmination of long-stoked anticipation. However, the former Nippon Ham Fighters ace-cum-slugger appeared unfazed, and simply told reporters after the game that the atmosphere was generally "different" from a Japan stadium and that he "had fun."
The first major league pitch to leave Ohtani's hand was a 96-mile-per-hour fastball to Oakland leadoff man Marcus Semien, and it smacked into the catcher's mitt for a strike. Two whiffs later and Semien was walking back to the dugout as the towering right-hander's first K of the season and indeed of his MLB career. And so began Ohtani's mission to make it in the bigs as a two-way player.
Ohtani had aspired to excel as both a pitcher and a hitter since his high school days in Iwate Prefecture. He expanded his ambitions to be the "best player in the world" upon his switch to Major League Baseball over the winter. But with high ambitions comes high risk, and Ohtani has experienced failures in his quest for baseball pre-eminence.
After two years on the Sapporo-based Fighters roster, Ohtani began a weight-training program to get more power at the plate. The result was a much more muscular upper body, but the physical changes impacted his pitching mechanics, causing control problems. Ohtani's greatness, however, is his ability to take missteps in his stride and use them to grow as a player. He quickly re-evaluated his workouts and both boosted his power and improved his mechanics.
He saw his greatest success in Japan in 2016, when he posted a 1.86 ERA and a 10 and 4 win-loss record while also belting 22 home runs. That year, he became the first person in Japan's pro baseball history to win the Best Nine award -- given to the best player at each position in each league -- as both a pitcher and a DH.
Major League Baseball has been around for more than a century, and one of the most revered names in that storied history is Babe Ruth. The Hall-of-Famer played from 1914 to 1935, and still holds third place on MLB's all-time home run board with 714. He is best remembered as a New York Yankee, but from 1914-1919, he was both a pitcher and hitter for the Boston Red Sox. In that time, he pitched in 163 games to the tune of a 2.28 ERA, and racked up a record of 94 and 46 plus three saves.
"(Ruth) is like a god to me," Ohtani has commented. "I'd like to get close to him through playing baseball."
That's why Ohtani did not get emotional about his first major league W.
"More than 'I've finally made it,' I feel strongly that this is just the beginning," he said.
And so Ohtani keeps his eyes fixed firmly on the baseball legend ahead of him, and takes his own first steps to major league stardom.