It took Shohei Ohtani more than 20 months to return to a major league mound, and less than 20 minutes to exit one.
The Los Angeles Angels‘ two-way sensation didn’t record a single out in his 2020 pitching debut Sunday. Instead, he walked three batters, gave up three singles and was charged with five earned runs in a road start against the Oakland Athletics, raising concerns about his readiness as a starting pitcher.
“He just didn’t throw the ball very well,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said after an eventual 6-4 loss at Oakland Coliseum. “I can’t sit here and make excuses for him. I’m not gonna do that. It just wasn’t his day. The fastball wasn’t coming out, there was no deception in his pitches, and hitters will tell you that.”
Ohtani, 26, threw 30 pitches, half of them balls, and left with two on, none out and a 4-0 deficit. The right-hander averaged 93 mph on a fastball that can reach triple digits and never had the opportunity to throw his trademark splitter.
Marcus Semien led off with a single, Ramon Laureano, Matt Chapman and Matt Olson each walked, and Mark Canha and Robbie Grossman followed with back-to-back singles, prompting Maddon to bring in Matt Andriese.
“It just wasn’t gonna get any better,” Maddon, wary of a young pitcher accumulating too many pitches in one inning, said of relieving Ohtani so soon.
Ohtani, speaking through an interpreter, said he isn’t worried about his velocity and that he felt both mentally and physically ready to return. Maddon, who is considering putting Ohtani in the lineup on Monday because his start was so short, said there are no concerns about his health.
“I just have to get that feel for the game back,” Ohtani said. “Today I just felt like I was throwing the ball rather than pitching.”
Ohtani had a 3.10 ERA with 61 strikeouts in 49⅓ innings before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament in 2018, which required an 18-month recovery. He spent the entire 2019 season as a designated hitter, finished his throwing program in December — a process delayed by knee surgery — and started facing opposing batters again while baseball was shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ohtani pitched in three intrasquad scrimmages at Angel Stadium before his 2020 debut. He improved each time, throwing his fastball as high as 97 mph, but he lacked command throughout, walking a combined 15 batters in a stretch of 11 innings.
Maddon publicly dismissed concerns, then watched Ohtani’s struggles translate to a game that counts. He said he believes Ohtani might have some “mental adhesions” to overcome after suffering such a debilitating injury.
“This guy is as good as we all think he is. He’s just not comfortable getting back there yet,” Maddon said. “When you come off a severe injury, sometimes you have to fight yourself, those mental roadblocks, in order to get back to where you have been.”