OAKLAND — After all that time, and all that expectation, Shohei Ohtani returned to the mound with a thud.
His first major league appearance as a pitcher in 693 days was, at best, disappointing and, at worst, deeply concerning.
Ohtani didn’t record a single out and was charged with five runs in the Angels’ 6-4 loss to the Oakland A’s on Sunday afternoon.
A brilliant 5-2/3 innings of relief from Matt Andriese — the team’s fifth starter — and four RBIs from Mike Trout helped the Angels make it a game, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the shocking start.
Ohtani faced six batters and retired none of them. He gave up a single, walked three in a row to force in a run, and then gave up two more singles to push in three more. One more scored after his 30-pitch outing was over.
“He just didn’t throw the ball very well,” Manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m not going to sit here and make excuses for him. I’m not going to do that. It just wasn’t his day. The fastball wasn’t coming out. There was no deception in his pitches… It was a combination. The stuff wasn’t the same and the command was down.”
Maddon, however, was quick to dismiss any concerns about Ohtani’s health.
“I asked him and he’s fine,” Maddon said. “The face and the eyes don’t really lie in that situation.”
Ohtani also told reporters that there were no physical issues, despite what many worried because of the velocity of his fastball.
Ohtani’s average fastball on Sunday was 92.9 mph, and the hardest was 94.7 mph. In 2018, before Tommy John surgery, Ohtani’s average fastball was 96.7 mph. He had recently thrown as hard as 97 mph in intrasquad games, according to General Manager Billy Eppler.
Maddon said that Ohtani had been throwing a little harder during the intrasquad games than he did on Sunday, but not significantly.
“Right about the same,” Maddon said. “I think he touched a little bit higher than that in some of the (intrasquad) games. I don’t know for sure, but I do know I’ve seen 95 or so. Ninety-seven was tops during the intrasquad games. So, there’s nothing. Believe me. Health-wise, he’s fine.”
Ohtani suggested that he may have been reluctant to unleash his top velocity, which is sometimes an issue for pitchers when they first return from injuries.
“Reflecting back, I felt like I couldn’t let it eat, throw with all my strength,” Ohtani said through his interpreter. “That’s one of the things I regret.”
Ohtani also threw just two splitters. His splitter is his most devastating pitch. In 2018, he threw it 22 percent of the time. The splitter is considered to be one of the tougher pitches on a pitcher’s arm, though. Ohtani said that was just a matter of the game situations not giving him the opportunity.
“I just have to get that feel for the game back,” Ohtani said. “Right now I feel like I was throwing the ball rather than pitching. There is still a little rust. I have to come up with a game plan.”
There was plenty of anticipation surrounding Ohtani’s return, with teammates, Maddon and Eppler all expressing excitement to see the two-way player pitch for the first time since September 2018.
He was initially scheduled to return to the mound in May, but the coronavirus pandemic further delayed that. He nonetheless had been throwing since then, with no hint from the team that there was anything wrong physically.
Ohtani pitched in three intrasquad games during the the preparation for this shortened season. He pitched better each time out, and there was an assumption — based on his pattern in 2018 — that the start of real competition would bring him to a higher level.
His first pitch to Marcus Semien was a 92 mph fastball. Semien then singled to center on a 93 mph fastball down the middle. Ohtani then lost the plate, walking the next three hitters to force in a run.
Ohtani then gave up back-to-back singles, pushing in three more runs, and his day was over.
“It just wasn’t going to get better,” Maddon said.
Andriese, who was expected to start on Tuesday, followed Ohtani to the mound and held the A’s down while the Angels could get back in the game.
In the third inning, after a Brian Goodwin single and one of David Fletcher’s four singles, Trout belted a 3-0 pitch over the left field fence to make it 5-3. It was the first time in Trout’s career he had homered on a 3-0 pitch. He had only put five others into play.
Trout just missed another three-run homer in the fifth, settling for a sacrifice fly that pulled the Angels within 5-4.
That was as close as they could get, though. Noe Ramirez gave up a 455-foot homer to Sean Murphy immediately after Andriese was pulled in the sixth, putting the Angels back in a two-run hole.
The Angels went quietly against A’s closer Liam Hendriks, their comeback coming up short and leaving the loss on the shoulders of a disappointed Ohtani.
On the bright side, Maddon said Ohtani may be available to DH on Monday because his pitching day ended so quickly. Maddon also voiced his support for Ohtani, even after the rough game.
“You got to be patient, man,” he said. “Because of a bad moment or two, you just don’t throw in the towel, ever. This guy is as good as you all think he is. He’s just not comfortable getting back there yet. When you come off a severe injury, sometimes you’ve got to fight through some of those mental roadblocks in order to get to back where you had been.”