The Shohei Showdown Sunday went to Ohtani, the Angels’ Japanese sensation who out-pitched the Mariners’ former ace, Felix Hernandez. This will continue to be a problem.
Entertaining as they have been for five weeks, the Mariners, along with the Angels, Sunday demonstrated two things that were known at the outset of spring training: Starting pitching is the separator, and general manager Jerry Dipoto’s professional lust for Japanese star Shohei Ohtani was not misplaced, even if his landing in MLB was.
As a result, the Mariners’ 19-14 record is a tad suspect.
Ohtani not only pitched six shutout innings at Safeco Field, giving up two hits and two walks, he followed two Angels starters, Garrett Richards Friday and Tyler Skaggs Saturday, in crushing a Mariners lineup that has done well outside of the AL West. Sunday was 8-2 (box), followed by a distinct thud.
“We didn’t get much going all series against their starting pitching,” said manager Scott Servais. No kidding: In 17 combined innings against the trio, the Mariners scored four runs and struck out 21 times.
The only reason they weren’t swept at home was by playing their most resolute offensive game of the season Saturday. Rallying from a 4-0 deficit for a 6-4 lead, and after closer Edwin Diaz blew his first save of the season, rallying in extra innings from deficits of 7-6 and 8-7, the Mariners won 9-8, a dramatic, 4½-hour chore.
Ohtani’s much-anticipated debut in Seattle, three days after countryman Ichiro was pushed off the Seattle roster into a quasi-managment job, was about as impressive a rookie show as Ichiro produced on numerous occasions in 2001 when he was the league MVP as well as rookie of the year.
“His fastball has got velocity,” Servais said. “There were stretches where he commanded it better than others. The secondary pitches are real — curveball, slider and split-finger all have depth. They are hard.
“He’s very poised. He gave us chances that we didn’t turn into hits, or big hits at all.”
It’s exactly the dominance Dipoto sought for the Seattle rotation in his well-publicized pursuit in the off-season of a superior athlete as capable on the mound as he is at the plate, where he is hitting .339 with four homers and 14 RBIs.
But even though speculation had the Mariners close to a signing, Ohtani surprised the unusual free agent field of suitors by choosing the Angels. He’s never said why he passed on Seattle, but one report said the Mariners’ rich tradition with Japanese players actually worked against them: Ohtani didn’t want to play in the shadow of Ichiro’s legacy.
But did he have to go to a division rival? And did it have to be Dipoto’s previous employer, whose meddlesome owner contributed to Dipoto’s departure?
All of that likely contributed to an afternoon for which only Dipoto’s dentist could appreciate, for all the work he’ll be getting repairing ground-up molars.
The outcome provided a cruel contrast for the Mariners because the losing pitcher was Felix Hernandez, the one-time ace for whom adventures between good and bad are a predictable fate. It’s part of why Dipoto felt urgency in the pursuit of a 23-year-old phenom.
“He didn’t have his his best stuff today,” Servais said. “Credit to him — he didn’t have his A game and continued to compete. There wasn’t one pitch working for him at all in the first couple of innings.”
Especially in the second inning, when Zach Cozart and Chris Young hit solo homers back to back for a 2-0 lead. In the sixth inning, Hernandez threw an uncatchable curve ball in the dirt that was nevertheless swung at for strike three, creating a baserunner out of the rare strikeout/wild pitch entry on the scorecard.
Two batters later, the inevitable Mike Trout, who seems to bat nine times a game against the Mariners, hit a three-run homer off reliever Chasen Bradford that de-fizzed the otherwise glorious spring afternoon for 40,142. Said Servais: “He was in the middle of everything this series.”
In 5.2 innings, Hernandez gave up five runs on seven hits and four walks with five strikeouts. The outing was of a kind with his fellow starters, who as a group have averaged 5.1 innings per start this season and have a collective ERA of 5.30.
That is no way to go six months through the AL West, where the Angels and world champion Astros have rotations built for the postseason. Unsurprisingly, the Mariners are 2-5 against them, 8-8 in the division overall.
“It’ the toughest division in baseball,” Hernandez said, somewhat defensively and arguably inaccurately. “We were playing pretty good, I give up those two homers.
“I just need to keep the ball in the ballpark. That’s all. From now on, that’s my goal.”
Since he’s given up nine in eight starts, that is certainly is an admirable goal, if a bit, shall we say, lofty.
The problem was hardly unexpected for a 32-year-old with a log of more than 2,500 major league innings. That’s why Dipoto wanted Ohtani.
It wasn’t hard to see it coming. Sunday for Mariners fans, it was just hard to see it.