Alexander: Shohei Ohtani finally gives Dodger fans what they’ve been expecting

Alexander: Shohei Ohtani finally gives Dodger fans what they’ve been expecting

LOS ANGELES — This was what the Dodgers, and their fans, and pretty near all of L.A. and maybe all of baseball – and, definitely, Shohei Ohtani – had been waiting for.

For the first six games of the Dodgers’ first homestand of 2024, baseball’s unicorn had been strangely muted. In a Dodger attack that had been averaging 6.2 runs and hadn’t scored less than five runs in a game, the most heralded and expensive acquisition (albeit with deferred money) of the offseason had been, in the words of Manager Dave Roberts, “just a tick off” with the bat.

Two at-bats in Wednesday night’s series-sweeping 5-4 victory over the rival San Francisco Giants dramatically, and definitively, changed that narrative.

Ohtani wasn’t terrible offensively going into Wednesday night. He just wasn’t keeping up with the rest of a high-powered offense, with a .242 average, .630 OPS, two doubles, no home runs – this, from a guy who hit an American League-leading 44 for the Angels in 135 games last year and 171 in his first six big league seasons – and eight strikeouts in 33 at-bats.

When he used his legs to beat out a roller to the right side in the second inning, and then scored from first on Will Smith’s double into the left field corner, that was a suggestion. And when he turned on a Taylor Rogers sinker in the seventh – a sinker that didn’t sink – and hammered it halfway up the right field pavilion, that was a 430-foot, 105.6 mph declaration to Dodger opponents: I’m here. And you’re now in trouble.

Imagine a batting order already at near-peak efficiency. Now imagine the best player in the world joining the party. Scary enough for you?

“Honestly, I was very relieved that I was able to get my first home run in a while,” Ohtani said afterward via interpreter Will Ireton. “Honestly, my swing hasn’t been great.”

To be precise, he hadn’t gone yard in 214 days, or since a first-inning homer Aug. 23 as an Angel against Cincinnati’s Andrew Abbott, in the first game of a doubleheader.

Obviously, a lot has happened since then: The injury that ended his season last Sept. 3, the free agency process that led to his becoming a Dodger, the commotion that surrounded his move up the freeway in the nation’s second-largest market (and moved, as well, the attention of Japanese baseball fans and a large slice of that country’s media).

And, most recently, there was what a reporter referred to delicately as the “interpreter situation” in a question to Roberts, the revelations that former interpreter Ippei Mizuhara owed $4.5 million in gambling debts to an illegal bookie and drew that money out of Ohtani’s bank account, either with or without Ohtani’s permission.

The storm behind those reports has subsided for now, but it would be easy to imagine that it had an effect on Ohtani, even just enough to throw him off a little bit.

“You just never know about a person until they go through some adversity, whether on the field or in this case off the field,” Roberts said. “I’ve learned that, he doesn’t – you know, he’s unflappable. He really is. … It might not be the production that we all expect and we know it’s going to happen. But as far as his demeanor, the way he comes in every day, he does a good job sort of separating the work from the other stuff.”

Even without that storm, the process of getting used to a new organization, a new clubhouse and new teammates and the desire to make a good first impression can affect a player’s performance, if ever so slightly, and maybe create some anxiety or angst or frustration. But if it has done so with Ohtani, you’d never see it. Indeed, the talk around the Dodgers is that he has been open and engaging in the clubhouse and has maybe had more and better communication with teammates since the change in interpreters.

And maybe our sky-high expectations don’t take into account the idea that players do slump, and do get off to slow starts. At some point, if someone’s good enough he’ll show it. Maybe that’s what we got a glimpse of Wednesday night, and what we’re about to see unfold on a six-game trip to Chicago and Minneapolis that begins with a day game Friday in Wrigley Field.

“I’m sure there was some relief there,” Roberts said of that mammoth home run, noting that even before that Ohtani seemed “very close” to being back in sync, and “even his misses were just off.” The at-bat before the home run, he hit a sharp liner at left fielder Michael Conforto that left the bat at 93.5 mph.

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“I think there’s something to the human nature part of wanting to get off to a good start with a new team, obviously with the contract and things like that,” Roberts said. “But, you know, I think most important is that we’re winning baseball games. And I think that’s something that helps kind of the transition or the weight that you might feel. And so as long as we keep winning, knowing that he’s going to perform at some point in time, (Wednesday night) was a really good step.”

Ohtani was far from the only one who came out of the evening with a smile on his face. There was, for example, the fan who caught Ohtani’s first Dodgers home run. The MLB authenticator verified the significance of the ball, and the fan made sure it got back to Ohtani.

And what was the price?

“A ball, two caps and a bat,” Ohtani said.

A small price, indeed.


— SportsNet LA (@SportsNetLA) April 4, 2024

Shohei Ohtani brought the Dodger Stadium crowd to its feet for the first time!

— MLB (@MLB) April 4, 2024

Shohei Ohtani hit his first @Dodgers homer, then got seeds from Teoscar!

— MLB (@MLB) April 4, 2024

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