Shohei Ohtani homers in Dodgers spring debut: ‘He’s built differently’

PHOENIX — Dino Ebel woke up Tuesday morning feeling a bit of deja vu.

Six years have passed since Shohei Ohtani made his official arrival in the United States, plotting to do something absurd: prove he can both pitch and hit at an elite level, that the lore that had followed him since he was a teen was not apocryphal. The allure of the myth brought with it curiosity, and excitement back then for Ebel, who was still serving as the Los Angeles Angels’ third base coach.

“I had no idea what I was really doing (back then),” Ohtani said through his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara. “But now I have the hang of this. It’s a lot different than back then.”

The feelings haven’t quite changed, though. Now reunited after Ohtani inked a 10-year, $700 million deal this winter with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ebel couldn’t help but think back ahead of Ohtani’s Cactus League debut in blue.

“Today, I feel the same,” Ebel said with a laugh Tuesday. “Shohei in the lineup, it’s a good thing for the Dodgers. And an exciting day for the organization.”

The optimism that’s surrounded Ohtani’s arrival has resonated throughout the Dodgers’ spring, applying a salve to a pair of 100-win seasons that flamed out in the first round and putting a near-billion dollar focus on a club that spent over $1 billion this past winter.

His arrival has been a spectacle, drawing crowds and screams for live batting practice as he rehabs from elbow surgery. Thousands more ogling fans crammed into Camelback Ranch seeking to get a glimpse of baseball’s richest man donning his new threads for the first time on Tuesday for his debut.

Thousands roared as Ohtani approached the plate for the first time, the new Dodgers two-way star stopping to acknowledge his former catcher, Max Stassi, before stepping in against Chicago White Sox flamethrower Garrett Crochet.

They didn’t leave without a first taste of the Sho.

His first swing was so violent, it caused him to lose his helmet. His next was a late cut on a 100 mph fastball. The next heater he saw also hit triple digits, nicking the corner as Ohtani went down looking. His next swing was a scorched double-play ball off a Justin Anderson slider.

Dominic Leone managed to get Ohtani into another tough count, then jammed Ohtani on a 95 mph fastball – only to have the slugger still have enough strength to drive the ball 377 feet away and over the left-field fence for a two-run homer, registering at 102 mph off the bat according to the ballpark’s TrackMan systems.

“I thought I hit it a little too high initially,” Ohtani said of the ball that carried and carried, sneaking over the fence, “but maybe it was the Arizona factor that factored in.”

It’s a reminder of what has made Ohtani appointment viewing.

“With Shohei, I’m starting to learn really quickly, he’s built differently,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

And now Ohtani’s neighbors in his first batting order are a reminder of how preposterous this group could potentially be. Ahead of him, former MVP Mookie Betts. Behind him, former MVP Freddie Freeman. Talk about protection for the two-time MVP, who has already drawn rave reviews from his new coaching staff. Combined, the first time the three players trot out together for the first inning at the Gocheok Skydome in Seoul, South Korea, would mark the first time a club has had three former MVPs hitting consecutively in nearly 30 years:

“You get a big glow on your face when you look at Ohtani, Freeman and Betts,” Roberts said.

In theory, putting that kind of offensive firepower on display should produce explosive results, regardless of order. Yet, as part of ongoing conversations the club has had since Roberts could start giddily writing out hypothetical lineups with Ohtani in it, the club settled on this alignment that they’ll likely stick to “for a while.” Betts has long been among the game’s most productive leadoff hitters. The club has valued Freeman’s selectiveness and bat-to-ball skill to help drive in runs. And having each could help the slugging Ohtani get more pitches to hit — and potentially punish.

“Pitchers are still gonna attack Shohei in a specific way, no doubt about it,” Roberts said. “But there’s also a chance that they should be in the strike zone a little bit more than if Freddie wasn’t behind him.”

Tuesday was just a spring training game, Ohtani cautioned. But it provided a trial balloon for the new alignment for the club’s sterling trio, as well as a litmus test for Ohtani as he finishes the final stages of his rehab. As one powerful swing showed, this spring geared around Ohtani being ready on time for Opening Day appears to be well on schedule.

“I just have a good feeling that there’s more to come,” Roberts said.

(Photo: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

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