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After a rough spring, Shohei Ohtnai impressed in his first pitching start of the year against the Oakland A’s. Was it enough to silence his doubters?
Time

ANAHEIM – Shohei Ohtani could not reward Los Angeles Angels fans with a home run on Sunday, as they had probably grown used to from his three previous appearances in a home uniform.

They would have to settle for a brilliant pitching performance instead.

Making his first start at Angel Stadium, the Japanese two-way sensation retired the first 19 batters he faced before yielding a one-out single in the seventh to Marcus Semien as the Angels defeated the Oakland Athletics 6-1.

In front of a rare April sellout crowd of 44,742, Ohtani unleashed a fastball that touched 100 mph and paired it with a devilish splitter and an effective slider. He overwhelmed A’s hitters from the get-go, striking out the first three batters he faced and 10 of the first 15.

“That’s as good a game,” says Angels manager Mike Scioscia, “as you could ever see pitched.”

In the middle innings, fans started getting up when Ohtani would reach strike two on a batter, anticipating a K. He complied time and again, striking out the side again in the fifth. He finished with 12 strikeouts, a hit and a walk in 91 pitches – 59 strikes – over seven shutout innings.

Suddenly, his quest to become the first player to pitch and hit regularly in nearly a century doesn’t look so quixotic.

Ohtani, who homered in three consecutive games as a DH this past week, yielded three runs on three hits over six innings last Sunday to notch his first major league win, as the Angels prevailed 7-4 in Oakland. In that game, he retired 14 of the last 15 batters he faced.

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On Sunday at Angel Stadium, the only A’s batter to make solid contact off Ohtani through the first six innings was Khris Davis, who led off the second with a liner to center field, caught by Mike Trout on the run. The rest of the A’s barely made a peep until Semien’s line single.

A’s manager Bob Melvin had cautioned before the game that, while seeing Ohtani for the second time in a week could benefit the club’s hitters, it was no guarantee of success.

“When you’re that talented, it could be just as difficult the 15th time you face him,’’ Melvin said. “But at least they kind of know a little bit what to expect, whereas the first time there were a lot of unknowns.’’

Knowing Ohtani a little better proved of no help.

Because the Angels don’t want to lose the designated hitter in his American League starts, Ohtani did not get to bat on Sunday, depriving the L.A. offense of its top hitter by batting average (.389) and on-base plus slugging percentage (1.310) as well as its co-leader in home runs (three).

No matter. Ohtani’s teammates provided him two first-inning runs against Oakland starter Kendall Graveman and then added on against him and the bullpen.

After signing with the Angels in the offseason as the game’s most coveted free agent, Ohtani endured a rough spring that brought into question his ability to transition right away from Japan to major league baseball. He hit just .125 in 32 at-bats and pitched to a 27.00 ERA.

Some batters suggested that, while Ohtani threw hard, his fastball was straight and hittable. That hasn’t been the case once the regular season started.

“When you have good off-speed pitches, it makes that fastball effective no matter what,’’ Semien said before Sunday’s game. “If it’s 99 and you have two or three awesome pitches to supplement that for strikes, then you have a pretty good pitch on your hands.’’

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Ohtani, 23, has fashioned a 1.38 ERA through his first two starts, with 18 strikeouts, two walks and four hits allowed in 13 innings.

And after ditching his high leg-kick for a toe-tap in his hitting stance late in the spring, Ohtani has been a terror at the plate, going 7-for-18 with seven RBI in four games.

Ohtani has been sitting the day before and the day after he pitches, so his next chance to extend his stretch of homering in three consecutive games will come Tuesday on the road against the Texas Rangers.

Manager Mike Scioscia said balancing Ohtani’s unique schedule has not proven difficult so far.

“As of the first couple of weeks it has been very manageable, but we have a long way to go and we have to be flexible,’’ Scioscia said. “(General manager) Billy Eppler has put a lot of time into seeing what the possibilities were and what is really feasible, and as we get more information on how this is working, we’ll adjust as we have to.’’

The possibilities now seem endless.

Perhaps Angels catcher Martin Maldonado put it best when he described Ohtani this way:

“He never looks like he’s out of place. He looks like a hitter when he’s batting and looks like a pitcher when he’s pitching. It’s impressive. We haven’t seen that before.’’

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