Culture / Sporting Life

Shohei Ohtani Finds His Killer Instinct, Shows the Astros the Angels Are Finally Not Pushovers

A Determined, Possessed Ohtani Dancing With Perfection Could Create the Perfect Rivalry

BY // 04.21.22

Having played Superman, showing the Angels that the Houston Astros may be a slayable beast after all, Shohei Ohtani retreats to the players lounge to grab a bite to eat. Ohtani’s prized right arm is covered in an ice wrap so thick that it could qualify as carry-on luggage, but that is the only sign that his near perfect night taxed him at all.

Angels 6, Astros 0. And a little bit of the Astros’ longtime dominance popped?

“I think he just had enough of Houston giving him a hard time and he wanted to go out there tonight and do something about it,” Angels manager Joe Maddon says of Ohtani, who came in 0-3 with a 5.92 ERA in six starts against the Astros before flipping everything with a 12-strikeout, one-hit gem.

Well it’s much too early to fret over Dusty Baker’s team being 6-6 (no matter what Astros Twitter will tell you), it may already be time to concede that this could be a very different Angels team. One that actually pushes the Astros and challenges their utter dominance of the American League West.

One series in April does not come close to settling anything. But the Angels winning a series in Minute Maid Park for the first time in four years is no small step for Joe Maddon’s club. The Astros aren’t close to being in danger. But they may have just given Anaheim’s often-dismissed franchise a serious dose of belief.

That could be a problem that lingers much more than any Jake Odorizzi issues, which can be solved with the depth of the pitching staff that the Astros have built. If you listen to Maddon, who has been involved in some crazy turnarounds in baseball including the Chicago Cubs winning a World Series, Ohtani stood up to the Astros monster and showed his guys the way.

“I can’t emphasize enough how involved he was in that game tonight,” Maddon says. “And the rest of the team followed.”

That definitely does not mean nothing.

The music is thumping in the visitors clubhouse at Minute Maid Park after this one, with even Mike Trout marveling over the guy who may have taken his mantle as the best player in baseball. For the first time in forever, the now 8-5 Angels will leave Houston feeling nothing but good vibes. And in first place.

“Shohei was the show,” Trout says grinning.

Max Stassi, the former Astro who’s turned into a better player in Anaheim, caught the two-way Japanese marvel — and quickly realized how much this game meant to Ohtani.

“He was super locked in from pitch one,” Stassi says when I ask if he could notice the difference. “He was relentless. He was attacking the zone. But yeah, his mindset. He was in the driver’s seat the whole night.”

During the debut of the new “Space City” Connect uniforms, the Houston Astroswere shut out 6-0 to superstar Shohei Ohtani and the Los Angles Angels of Anaheim at Minute Maid Park
Shohei Ohtani and catcher Max Stassi, a former Astro, enjoyed every minute of this Minute Maid Park night. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Ohtani drove the Astros’ usually potent offense right off a cliff. The reigning AL MVP struck out seven of the first 10 batters he faced, and 12 of the first 16, taking a perfect game one out into the sixth inning. Only catcher Jason Castro could flare a ball over leaping Angels second baseman Tyler Wade (who had no chance of catching it without growing three feet) that dropped between Wade and the center fielder. That blip caused Shohei Ohtani to take a minute and wipe the sweat from his brow while walking behind the mound.

Then he got the always eager Jose Siri to hit an infield popup that seemed to go high enough to threaten a blimp. Walking promising young Astros shortstop Jeremy Pena barely fazed Ohtani. His response? Throwing a nasty curve that induces Michael Brantley, arguably baseball’s most professional hitter, to ground out on the first pitch.

With that, Ohtani’s night was done at 20 Astros faced, 18 outs recorded and only that one measly single and lone walk allowed. The team in Severance isn’t even this efficient when a waffle party is on the line.

“He was super locked in from pitch one. He was relentless. He was attacking the zone. But yeah, his mindset. He was in the driver’s seat the whole night.” — Max Stassi on Shohei Ohtani

So much for the grand debut of those Space City uniforms that’s been setting sales records in the team shops. The first time the actual Major Leaguers wear them in a game, the Astros forget that they once owned Shohei Ohtani the way the New York Yankees once owned Pedro Martinez. (You know back long, long ago when the Yankees actually used to make the World Series and collect rings.)

Ohtani attacked this game with the fervor of a Fox News host celebrating the end of having to wear masks on planes. Beating the Astros became Ohtani’s sole, all-consuming mission. And the rest of the Angels were more than thrilled to jump on board.

This dominant win, this series victory, carries plenty of weight to Ohtani and his teammates.

“Absolutely,” Stassi tells PaperCity when I ask if beating the Astros at Minute Maid in a series means something extra. “Houston’s the team to beat obviously. They’ve won the division for the last, I don’t even know how many years. . .”

Stassi laughs before continuing. “They’re a great ball club over there obviously. They can be in any game. So two out of three is great. And we’re going to enjoy the off day tomorrow.”

Knowing Ohtani can pitch like this against the Astros cannot help but give Joe Maddon’s team a little more swagger. This is how an 1A ace can make his team believe.

By making the Astros’ usually fearsome lineup look like they’re swinging with inflatable novelty bats. One flailing strike after the other. Thanks to a slider that is so filthy that it would immediately be banned as obscene in Utah.

“He was possessed tonight,” Maddon says after Ohtani induces a whopping 20 swinging strikes on his 81 pitches. “That was a virtuoso performance from the beginning. He had a different look about him. And the stuff equaled the look.”

It is the look of 27-year-old superstar who may be realizing what it takes to drive a MLB team into the playoffs. Ohtani is the only pitcher left in the Major Leagues whose uniform can be caked with dirt from his batting and base running exploits. Because Ohtani is the only pitcher who also hits period now.

“Houston’s the team to beat obviously. They’ve won the division for the last, I don’t even know how many years. . .” — Angels catcher Max Stassi

During the debut of the new “Space City” Connect uniforms, the Houston Astroswere shut out 6-0 to superstar Shohei Ohtani and the Los Angles Angels of Anaheim at Minute Maid Park
Only Jason Castro could get a hit against Shohei Ohtani. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

This new age of the universal DH only makes Ohtani look more like the ultimate anomaly. There he is, making the Astros swing at air after batting twice in the first inning and knocking a ball off the left field scoreboard. Even before he throws his first pitch, Shohei Ohtani’s gray road Angels uniform is caked with big streaks of dirt.

“Nobody does that,” Maddon says. “Nobody does that.”

Shohei Ohtani and the Power of Encores

Ohtani already won an MVP doing what nobody else does, starring in both the batter’s box and on the mound. But beating the Astros, his personal beast in many ways, like this is something else.

So is this his best game in the Majors? “It could be,” Ohtani tells the English-only speaking reporters through Angels interpreter Ippei Mizuhara.

Ohtani is grinning, his tussled black hair free of sweat and looking Hollywood ready. For once, the Astros barely touched him. Now, Dusty Baker’s team needs to consider what that means for the future.

Shohei Ohtani lives in the spotlight. After speaking to the limited English-only speaking reporters, he conducts a whole other media session with the much larger contingent of Japanese reporters that follows him across America. And it lasts much longer.

Ohtani’s long known how to be his best under a bright glare. But now, he may be learning much more about winning in the Major Leagues.

Forget Odorizzi and the nine earned runs he’s allowed in nine innings. This Ohtani leap is what the Astros really should be potentially worried about.

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