Shohei Ohtani showcases his splitter prowess, throwing it 55 times vs. Oakland

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Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani tosses the ball while pitching against the Oakland Athletics.
Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani tosses the ball while on the mound against the Oakland Athletics on Sunday. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Shohei Ohtani threw a nasty split-fingered fastball in the first inning on Sunday that raised the eyebrows of Angels manager Joe Maddon, who is not used to seeing his two-way star go to his signature put-away pitch so soon.

“It was a really good one, and I looked at [pitching coach Matt Wise] and said, ‘Splitter? That early?’ ” Maddon said after a 3-2, 10-inning loss to the Oakland Athletics in Angel Stadium. “I think he was experimenting with some different grips, and apparently it was working pretty well.

“He had good command of it. You saw the swing and miss or the weak contact. He’s based on feel. When he’s feeling something, he’s gonna stay with it and not force something else.”

Ohtani was definitely feeling the splitter on Sunday. Of the 108 pitches he threw in an eight-inning, two-run, five-hit, 10-strikeout effort, 55 were splitters, the most thrown in a game by any pitcher since 2008, per Statcast.

The right-hander induced 17 swinging strikes and two called strikes with the pitch, which averaged 89.2 mph, and he struck out the side — Seth Brown, Yan Gomes and Elvis Andrus — with splitters in the seventh.

“The biggest goal I had coming into this year was staying healthy and finishing healthy, and in order to do that, I felt I needed to balance certain pitches, because some pitches are more stressful on your elbow,” Ohtani said through an interpreter. “We only have a couple games left. I feel good physically, so I wanted to try more splitters.”

Ohtani was scheduled to start Friday night’s series opener against the A’s but was scratched after experiencing some general soreness in his pitching arm following a game of catch on Wednesday.

He declared himself fit after completing a 32-pitch bullpen session on Friday, and the Angels had no reservations starting him on Sunday, even though Ohtani has a history of elbow injuries and the team is well out of playoff contention.

“I think it’s consistent with the whole attitude we had all year, where I’m not gonna kind of baby him, I’m just going to let him go out there and play baseball,” Maddon said before the game.

“He said it was a little sore the other day. Had he come back and said it’s still a little bit tender, I probably would have gone in a different direction, but [Wise] said it was one of his better side pieces, so let him go. That’s it.”

Maddon believes the benefits of pitching Sunday and making one or possibly two more starts this season could be felt in 2022. Ohtani’s eight-inning no-decision pushed him to 123 1/3 innings this season. With a lengthy effort in his next start, or with two more starts, he could surpass 130 innings.

“Of course, it’s not going to move the needle in the present tense,” Maddon said, “but who knows? If he gets two more starts, you’re going to be more comfortable getting him to 150 innings next year.”

That Ohtani surpassed the 100-inning mark, a threshold no other Angels pitcher will reach this season, seems remarkable for a 27-year-old who did not pitch in 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery and was limited by elbow problems to 1 2/3 innings in two games in 2020.

But the Angels can’t say Ohtani exceeded expectations, because they didn’t have an innings range in mind for him this season.

“That was part of the original plan,” Maddon said. “I spoke with Perry [Minasian, Angels general manager] in spring training, and we decided just to watch and see how he’s doing and make decisions based on where he’s at during the course of the year.

“There was never a specific number in mind other than go pitch, go play, we’ll watch, talk about it, and if you need a break, we’ll give you a break, and if not, keep playing. It’s been no more complicated than that, really.”

Ohtani, who ranks third in the American League with 44 homers and is in the thick of the AL most valuable player race, has no desire to ease his workload in the final two weeks of the season.

“I want to keep on throwing — I think every time I throw, I learn something and get better,” Ohtani said. “I’m going to be pitching next year and beyond, so I think this whole experience is gonna help me down the road.

Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani pumps his fist after striking out Oakland's Matt Chapman.
Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani pumps his fist after striking out Oakland's Matt Chapman to end the eighth inning Sunday. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

“Yeah, it’s been hard to keep my motivation up when we’re out of the playoff race, but I’m gonna keep my head down and stay in there.”

Ohtani is 9-2 with a 3.28 ERA in 22 starts, with 146 strikeouts, 44 walks and a 1.11 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning). He has given up 93 hits and held opponents to a .208 average.

In what ways has Ohtani evolved the most as a pitcher this season?

“Command of all of his stuff, repetition of his delivery, he’s quicker out of the stretch, he goes to the slower, more elongated delivery when no one is on base,” Maddon said.

“He has a great feel for what he’s doing out there. He makes adjustments constantly, but the biggest difference from when I first saw him last year to now is overall command of all of his pitches.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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