The anticipation was that we’d see a world-class pitching duel, with hopefully the unhittable version of Shohei Ohtani showing up against the red-hot Charlie Morton, who had been as good as any starter in the game so far.
We didn’t get one, but maybe we saw something even more exciting on Tuesday: the birth of a rivalry.
Ohtani and Morton both struggled with their control and walked five batters, as Ohtani couldn’t get out of the sixth inning while Morton got a quick hook after four. The game turned into a back-and-forth affair as the Angels blew a 4-1 lead, fell behind 5-4, surged ahead 8-5, saw the Astros cut it to a run, and then held on for an 8-7 victory. The Angels have gone into Houston and defeated the defending champs in the first two games of this three-game series to take a half-game lead in the American League West and serve notice that the next 17 games this season between the two teams are going to give us plenty of delicious baseball to savor.
The Angels and Astros essentially have no history with each other. While they were born a year apart -- the Angels in 1961 and the Astros in 1962 under their original Colt .45s moniker -- the Astros spent most of their existence in the National League before switching leagues in 2013. In their five seasons together in the AL West, the only year both finished above .500 was in 2015. And while the Astros did edge the Angels by one win for the second wild card, wild-card races don’t exactly create antagonistic feelings on the part of the teams and their fans.
It’s not Yankees-Red Sox or Cubs-Cardinals or Dodgers-Giants and that’s a good thing, because if this division race turns into something special it’s because of what happens between the lines. The defending champs are the heavy favorites thanks to their stellar rotation, but Mike Trout is already on his way to an MVP campaign and has more of a supporting cast than he’s had in recent seasons.
Ohtani, of course, is the biggest of those new cast members and this was another test with him coming off a start in which he lasted just two innings against the Red Sox and left with a blister. This outing was more reminiscent of that one than the 12-strikeout effort when he dominated the A’s, and through four starts we are left wondering: Is he “just” going to be a very exciting five-inning starter -- in a world of five-inning starters -- or will he develop into something more than that?
Once again, he showed off his blazing fastball, including four pitches clocked at 101 mph and eight total of 100-plus. He has 16 100 mph pitches so far in his four starts, compared to just nine for all other starting pitchers. Via Kenneth Woolums of ESPN Stats & Info: Only six other starters in the past 10 years have even reached 101 mph: Justin Verlander (16 times), Nate Eovaldi (5), Noah Syndergaard (4), Yordano Ventura (3), Luis Severino (2) and Gerrit Cole (1).
Those radar readings are one reason we’ll watch every week to see how this plays out, because even the OK nights can have their own magic. This game had some of that early on for Ohtani, but then in the bottom of the fifth he walked Marwin Gonzalez on a 3-2 fastball that may have caught the bottom of the zone but was called a ball and then Derek Fisher sat on a first-pitch, 95 mph heater and crushed it to center:
Fisher. Trout. There's some joke here, but in the mean time, here's a 425 foot jack. 🐟 pic.twitter.com/Ik3hrUGcVL— Houston Astros (@astros) April 25, 2018
I’ve pointed out before how that corner -- low and away to lefties, in to righties -- is where Ohtani’s fastball seems most vulnerable. Maybe it flattens out there or something. Anyway, Ohtani was pulled after a walk and a strikeout in the sixth and Brian McCann greeted Jose Alvarez with a go-ahead home run. The Angels would score four in the top of the seventh, including Andrelton Simmons’ three-run homer off Joe Smith --
his second homer of the game -- with a swing that won’t go down as the prettiest home run ever hit:
It will be interesting to see how the views on Ohtani the pitcher evolve as the season progresses. It’s simply not realistic to expect him to have a string of performances like rookie phenoms of the past -- think Mark Fidrych in 1976 when he had 24 complete games in 29 starts or Fernando Valenzuela with five shutouts in his first eight starts in 1981. That was a different era and we must hold Ohtani to the standards of today, not 30 or 40 years ago.
That means short outings, batters running up pitch counts and a parade of relievers like the nine in this game. Here’s a stat to consider: Entering Tuesday, there already had been 474 different pitchers used this season; in 1992 there were just 441 pitchers all season (in a 26-team league). With all those relievers in the bullpen, managers are going to use them.
Still, Ohtani has the talent to go deeper into games, but he’s going to have to improve his pitch efficiency on those days he isn’t simply overpowering opponents. There will be plenty of those days to come. It’s what happens on those other days that will determine if Ohtani remains a tantalizing talent or a dominant force.
If it seems like there have been a lot of no-hit watches so far, you’re right: Reds rookie Tyler Mahle took a no-hitter into the seventh before Freddie Freeman homered. Via my ESPN colleague Sarah Langs:
There have now been 13 no-hit bids of 6+ IP this season...There were 24 such bids ALL of last year.— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) April 25, 2018
Freeman would add another homer in the ninth as the Braves scored four runs to tie it -- only to see Scooter Gennett hit a walk-off blast for the Reds in the 12th inning to win it 9-7, a much-needed feel-good moment for the 5-18 Reds.
Speaking of the Braves, it looks like it’s Ronald Acuna time:
Source confirms Acuna has been informed he's being called up for the Braves. The plan is for him to join the team tomorrow.— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) April 25, 2018
#Braves top prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. has hit safely in 8 of his last 10 games for Gwinnett, batting .300 (12-for-40) with 7R, 1HR, 2RBI, 3SB, 6BB/12K. He's raised his batting average from .138 on April 13 to .232 as of today.— Grant McAuley (@grantmcauley) April 25, 2018
Welcome to the Show, kid.
Emotional win for Blue Jays: The Red Sox had tied the game with two runs off Roberto Osuna in the ninth, but Curtis Granderson did this off Craig Kimbrel in the bottom of the 10th, bringing some joy to Toronto after the tragic van attack that killed 10 pedestrians on Monday:
Random thought: If Acuna has a career as good as Granderson’s (47.1 WAR), he’ll have done great. Maintain reasonable expectations for him and -- as with Ohtani -- let’s see how it plays out.