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Shohei Ohtani shows he's "built differently," slugs 2-run HR in first exhibition game with Dodgers

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Shohei Ohtani stepped into the bright Arizona sun, carrying the weight of a $700 million contract and the expectations that go with it, before launching a two-run homer in his first exhibition game for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Not a bad way to endear himself to his new legions of fans — not to mention his new team.

“I’m starting to learn really quickly, he’s built differently,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

Ohtani needed just three exhibition at-bats to show how he might impact the Dodgers lineup on Tuesday, working a full count in the fifth inning before an opposite-field shot off Dominic Leone that just cleared the left-field wall.

The Japanese slugger was hitless in his first two plate appearances, striking out on four pitches in the first inning and hitting a hard grounder into a double play in the third.

“Definitely felt good at the plate, felt better each time,” Ohtani said through a translator. “We're trending in the right direction.”

The two-time Most Valuable Player received a standing ovation before his first at-bat at Camelback Ranch, where dozens of fans wore his No. 17 jersey and cheered his every move. The Dodgers — already one of MLB's premier franchises — have become even more popular after spending more than $1 billion to sign Ohtani and fellow Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

Ohtani spent his first six big league seasons playing for the Los Angeles Angels before signing with the crosstown Dodgers.

The three-time All-Star's first full swing on Tuesday wasn’t exactly one of the memories. He missed the ball, his helmet tumbled off his head and it took a few seconds to gather himself before returning to the batter’s box. But he bounced back from that awkward moment in a hurry, showing the power that's helped him hit 124 homers over the past three seasons.

The crowd roared when Ohtani connected and the cheers grew louder as the ball slowly drifted over the left-field wall, which helped the Dodgers beat the Chicago White Sox 9-6.

“I thought I hit it a little too high, but maybe the Arizona weather factored in a little,” Ohtani said.

Ohtani was in the second spot of the lineup against the White Sox, sandwiched between leadoff hitter Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman.

Roberts said all three stars were receptive to the Betts-Ohtani-Freeman lineup construction. The manager added that having Ohtani at the No. 2 spot wasn't “set in stone,” but it's something he wants to try for a while during spring training. Catcher Will Smith hit cleanup and third baseman Max Muncy was fifth, giving a preview of what the top half of the Dodgers order could look like this season.

“I feel that having Shohei hitting in front of Freddie gives Shohei a lot of protection,” Roberts said.

It was Ohtani's first spring training game since signing a record $700 million, 10-year contract — and first since right elbow surgery in September that will keep him from pitching this year. He was the designated hitter on Tuesday, a role he's expected to fill all season.

The 29-year-old is further along in his recovery than Los Angeles said it anticipated, and the team hopes he will be available when the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres play a two-game series in Seoul, South Korea, on March 20 and 21 to start the regular season.

Judging from his first spring training game, he's got a chance to be ready.

“Most importantly is his health,” Roberts told reporters this week. "So if it lines up, great. And if it doesn’t, then we’ll still move on from there.”

NOTES: Right-hander Walker Buehler faced batters during his throwing session on Tuesday. The two-time All-Star missed the 2023 season after his second Tommy John surgery in August 2022.

Yamamoto is expected to make his spring training debut on Wednesday against the Texas Rangers.

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb

David Brandt, The Associated Press