Japanese right-hander Shohei Ohtani walked into the Yankees’ spring training clubhouse last summer with an overwhelming sense of awe, wondering how he was going to make it as a pro. He hit the major leagues twice, once at University of North Carolina, three years ago, but never crossed the majors as a teenager.
Yet there he was, pitching in the Yankees’ bullpen on a frigid night as spring training was winding down.
“I know that there’s probably a two-minute conversation you have with yourself about, ‘Man, what am I going to do with this year? I’m going to focus on my progression,’ and I didn’t remember,” Ohtani said, stepping into a mock press conference. “This could have been my last season in college and in Japan. I wasn’t planning on going that far yet, being able to fulfill that moment.”
Now, Ohtani looks ready to take a big step forward in his second professional season. He opened the season at 20-4 with a 2.06 ERA in 29 games, notching 13 complete games and 158 strikeouts and letting opposing batters know he is prepared to struggle with mixed results. Ohtani has showed an ability to strike out his opponent and harass the defense in an effort to intimidate their bats into mistake-free at-bats.
Ohtani, though, gets at-bats for each pitch in his starts and keeps each one flowing after settling into a routine. How often he gets an at-bat is up to the Dodgers.
“I don’t have quite the mind-set I had back then, but I’m going to enjoy a couple of innings and try to at least enjoy the experience of making it out of the bullpen,” Ohtani said. “It’s going to be difficult, and if it’s going to be difficult I have to let my adrenaline and my enthusiasm help me through.”
Prior to last season, Ohtani pitched in the Japan Pacific League for a number of years, a model of how to excel in the majors. The natural 6-foot-5 right-hander was dominating with a hard slider, sliders and off-speed pitches that kept opposing hitters guessing.
“It made me feel like I was doing my job there and I got to try to capitalize on some of the regular battles I had every day in Japan,” Ohtani said. “I knew my numbers would be very similar in Major League Baseball. But then I would see how much different I would be doing for a six- or seven-week stretch, like, wow, I think I was doing something different than I was doing at home.”
Ohtani clearly has his sights set on the American league, despite the 26-year-old’s international fame.
“You have a personal responsibility to do the best you can and maybe stop being anxious,” Ohtani said. “I’m not worried about what I have coming. I’m worried about making the most of this and doing the best I can to help this team out. It’s a new opportunity for me and I’m going to enjoy this part of my life.”