Shohei Ohtani flirts with perfection as he grabs first win of 2022

Shohei Ohtani carried a perfect game into the sixth inning and also played a central role with his bat in the first-inning uprising that kicked off the visiting Los Angeles Angels’ 6-0 victory over the Houston Astros on Wednesday.

In the rubber match of a three-game series, Ohtani (1-2) retired the first 16 batters he faced to earn his first career win over the Astros, against whom he was 0-3 with a 5.92 ERA and 0-2 with a 6.50 ERA at Minute Maid Park. He threw 81 pitches, 55 for strikes, and rode a dominant slider to 12 strikeouts, tying his career high.

“My pitch count was getting high so I don’t think I would’ve pitched nine innings,” Ohtani said.

“I did poorly in my last outing so this gives me a big (boost of confidence). My pitches were effective. It’s hard to get into a rhythm when your team scores early and you’re expected to protect a six-run lead. I should give myself some credit,” he said.

Ohtani generated 11 swinging strikes on 35 sliders and recorded six swings and misses among his 19 splitters. His first nine strikeouts were all swinging — mostly on splitters and sliders — including six in succession covering the third and fourth innings. Ohtani retired those nine batters with five splitters and four sliders.

The two-way star was especially dominant through his first five innings, requiring only 60 pitches to retire the 15 batters he faced. His lone called third strike came against Kyle Tucker for the second out of the fifth on a splitter.

Ohtani retired Yuli Gurriel swinging with a curveball to cap that frame.

It wasn’t until the sixth inning with one out that Houston broke through. Ohtani fell behind catcher Jason Castro 3-1 before running the count full with a pinpoint slider. Castro then dumped the 3-2 pitch into shallow center field for his first hit of the season. Ohtani walked Jeremy Pena with two outs but escaped the sixth unscathed to keep his ledger clean.

On the other side of the ball, batting leadoff, Ohtani recorded a walk, a two-run double and scored the first run in the Angels’ six-run first inning.

Astros right-hander Jake Odorizzi (0-2) continued his early-season struggles by issuing four walks while recording only two outs in the first inning, with the final free pass issued to Tyler Wade with the bases loaded, before Astros’ manager Dusty Baker called on the bullpen

Odorizzi also issued a bases-loaded walk earlier in the inning to Anthony Rendon and surrendered an RBI single to Brandon Marsh that pushed the Angels to a 2-0 lead.

Los Angeles Angels' starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani (right) hits an RBI double during the first inning of a game against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park, in Houston, on Wednesday. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
Los Angeles Angels’ starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani (right) hits an RBI double during the first inning of a game against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park, in Houston, on Wednesday. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS

Two batters after Odorizzi was pulled, Ohtani drilled a double off the scoreboard in left against Astros left-hander Blake Taylor to cap the rally. He finished 2-for-4 with 2 RBIs, a walk and a run scored.

The Astros suffered their second shutout loss to the Angels this season.

Ohtani, the reigning American League MVP, got his 2022 season off to a slow 5-for-29 start as a hitter and 0-2 start as a pitcher.

He gave up six runs, including his first grand slam in the majors, over 3⅔ innings in a loss to the Texas Rangers on April 14. In his Opening Day start against the Astros on April 7, he surrendered one run, four hits and one walk with nine strikeouts over 4⅔ innings.

Wednesday’s outing could be a sign that Ohtani is starting to settle in to form, something manager Angels’ Joe Maddon is likely to be happy with.

“He was possessed tonight,”  Maddon said. “That was a virtuoso performance.”

Ohtani said Thursday that he had been inspired by compatriot Roki Sasaki’s pitching feats back home in Japan.

The 20-year-old Sasaki, who like Ohtani comes from Iwate Prefecture and also reaches speeds in excess of 160 kilometers per hour, threw a 19-strikeout perfect game on April 10 and followed it by not allowing a runner for another eight innings while striking out 14 in Japanese pro baseball.

“Of course, that’s an extraordinary thing to do,” Ohtani said. “To not allow a run for two consecutive games is awfully hard, but it shows what great stuff he has to not allow a hit either.”

Ohtani said he was not alone in taking note of Sasaki’s achievements.

“Even in America, (Sasaki’s games) were big news, so everybody knows about it,” Ohtani said. “I want him to do even better, and I’d like to do what I can to spark him to that.”

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