Wojo: Facing Ohtani, no goose eggs for Tigers

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — He’s a little bit of everything and a lot of something, defying definition. He’s a freak or a flash, a generational talent or a bizarre baseball experiment, 100 years in the making. However you label him, Shohei Ohtani is something no one has seen before, not in the majors, not in the modern era.

The Tigers were eager to see the Angels’ rookie pitcher-hitter extraordinaire, to see what the fuss was all about. And frankly, baseball could use more fascinating fusses like this, rarities that burst normal convention.

Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani works in the first inning Wednesday against the Tigers.

Here Ohtani was at Comerica Park on Wednesday night, unleashing his devastating splitter and hitting 101 mph with his fastball, in between the raindrops, game stops and wild goose chases. Yes, there were two rain delays and one amazing goose romp, as the grounds crew tried to chase the bird off the field. It finally took flight, slammed into a videoboard in the upper deck, then fell into the stands.

More: Wild goose chase ends with crash at Comerica

This is not a parable for the game, by the way. After fans gasped and players gaped, the goose turned out to be fine. Duly inspired, the Tigers took over after Ohtani exited the 1-1 tie and rolled to a 6-1 victory, no goose eggs here.

I wouldn’t dare say the Tigers played loosey-goosey, but they weren’t intimidated by Ohtani, just intrigued. And while a growing legend can’t fulfill top billing every night, Ohtani was impressive. He went five innings, allowing one run and three hits, walking three and striking out five. You certainly could see why he’s so acclaimed, one of baseball’s biggest sensations in years.

“He’s got very powerful stuff,” said Castellanos, who had two doubles off Ohtani. “So I think when he comes to a place where he’s harnessing that, and he can play with that 101 whenever he wants, that’s kind of a Justin Verlander-type deal. But him being so young, it’s a process, everybody wants him to be polished yesterday. Very good composure, and you can tell he’s got a lot of tricks up his sleeve.”

Ohtani, 23, is the first major-leaguer to take a regular spot in a starting rotation while also serving as a regular hitter since a guy named Babe Ruth 99 years ago, although Ohtani doesn’t do both in the same game. What began as a notable curiosity has become something larger, an historical benchmark, as Ohtani excels at both. He’s become a crowd attraction, although he didn’t have that effect this night (19,494), at least partly because of the threatening weather.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about his look or his form, a 6-4, 203-pounder who spent five seasons playing in Japan. He was the free-agent star of the offseason, and brought something no one else has — batting left-handed, pitching right-handed. He also stirred healthy skepticism. I mean, this couldn’t be possible in today’s game of specialized training, for a player to perform both disciplines?

So far, it’s more than possible. Ohtani is 4-1 with a 3.18 ERA, and ranks second in the AL with an average fastball velocity of 97.1. His signature pitch is so effective, opposing batters were 1-for-44 hitting the splitter, until Castellanos laced a double in the third inning.

“It’s just amazing how he’s throwing 90-91, and all of a sudden you see 98 out of nowhere when he really wanted to pump up,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Nice big slow curveball, really confident on the mound, you can tell he really knew what he was doing.”

The Angels are careful with their wunderkind, and manager Mike Scioscia has monitored the workload. Ohtani’s start Wednesday night was his first in 10 days, only his eighth of the season.

More: Tigers, fans will get look at Angels' 2-way sensation Shohei Ohtani

None of it has bothered his hitting — .291, six home runs, 20 RBIs and a .929 OPS. As long the dual roles continue, the question will be: How long can it continue? The Angels figure they’ll assess the sustainability after the season, but in the meantime, the Shohei Show churns on.

The Tigers dove in quickly in the first inning, with leadoff hitter Leonys Martin drawing a walk. Victor Martinez also walked, and Niko Goodrum delivered a 1-0 lead with a sharp RBI single off a fastball. Like most players, Goodrum knew Ohtani only by reputation, scouting reports and the occasional TV highlight.

“It’s not a big deal for me, just another guy on the mound trying to throw the ball,” Goodrum said before the game. “I don’t put too much into it, or put someone on a pedestal or anything. But it is impressive. I didn’t think anyone could (play both ways) at this level.”

The thing is, almost every kid does it at the little league level, and it’s staggering to think no one else has done it at the major league level for a century. You’re a hitter or a pitcher, and you don’t damage your college or pro career by taxing your body. It took someone from a different culture to show it can be done, but let’s hold off on predicting any kind of trend.

For one thing, Ohtani is an athletic marvel, wiry and strong, with a power arm as menacing as his power bat. For another thing, we’ll have to see how long he can keep it up.

“There’s still a long way to go before we decide that he can do both and be really successful,” Gardenhire said. “But as a start, it’s pretty good. We know he can hit the ball out of the ballpark and has a great arm. Trying to maintain that over the course of your career, I don’t know how many people could. We’ll see if he can.”

We might not see many nights like this, when a goose crashed and the rain kept starting and stopping. But baseball surely will see more of the Ohtani phenomenon, which looks like it’s just getting started.