Angels have been warned: Shohei Ohtani will not settle for mediocrity

·4 min read
Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani throws to home plate during the first inning.
Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani delivers during the first inning of a 5-1 loss to the Seattle Mariners on Sunday. (Michael Owen Baker / Associated Press)

The Angels’ final homestand of the season was eventful, but not for anything that happened on the field. The men in uniform have had enough of the annual losing, and they are no longer shy about saying so.

On Wednesday, and again on Friday, manager Joe Maddon said the Angels needed to land two front-line starters or risk perpetual mediocrity. On Saturday, Mike Trout said the Angels had “a lot of money to spend” and the offseason was “going to be big.”

On Sunday, after the Angels lost their home finale to the Seattle Mariners, 5-1, Shohei Ohtani spoke up. He was the best thing to happen to the Angels this season, and to all of baseball. He is tired of losing too.

"I really like the team. I love the fans. I love the atmosphere of the team,” Ohtani said via an interpreter. “But, more than that, I want to win. That’s the biggest thing for me. I'll leave it at that."

Ohtani could win the American League most valuable player award this year. Trout won three times in the previous eight years. Neither of those Angels superstars has won a major league playoff game.

The Angels have not qualified for the postseason since 2014. They have not posted a winning record since 2015.

“It’s very frustrating, very disappointing,” Ohtani said. “I always look forward to being in the playoff race at the end.”

The last time the Angels won a postseason game, in 2009, Vladimir Guerrero drove in the tying run. His son now leads the major leagues in home runs — for the Toronto Blue Jays, not the Angels.

The stars displayed on larger-than-life banners outside Angel Stadium this spring did not fare well this season. Albert Pujols was released, and his banner was removed. Trout, Anthony Rendon and Justin Upton finished the season on the injured list. David Fletcher fell to ninth in the batting order.

That left Ohtani to shoulder the burden, on Sunday and all summer, and he did so with grace and strength.

Trout twice passed up free agency to sign a long-term contract extension and stay in Anaheim. Ohtani cannot become a free agent until after the 2023 season, but the Angels could try to sign him well in advance. They signed Trout two years ahead of his potential free agency; they could sign Ohtani on a similar timetable this winter. Ohtani said there are no extension talks currently taking place.

Does Ohtani believe he can win in Anaheim, and would he want to stay?

“It’s hard to say,” Ohtani said. “We were putting up a good fight through like July or August, sticking around .500 and waiting for the guys to come back. That was our motivation. But the guys didn’t come back, so it was hard to keep that motivation up.

“If nothing changes on the team, I think it’s going to be pretty hard to be in playoff contention.”

Angel Stadium was half-empty for the home finale, even with Ohtani pitching and hitting, and even with fans holding up signs that celebrated him and chanting “M-V-P!” in his honor.

At the plate, the Angels (74-82) had three hits. He had one.

On the mound, over the first six innings, he held the Mariners scoreless on four hits — all singles, and two of which might have been ground outs with better defense. In his seventh and final inning, he gave up his only run — a home run, on his 105th pitch, to Jarred Kelenic.

He struck out 10, walked none and received no decision. He became the first Angels pitcher in three years to strike out 150 in a season.

In 13 starts at Angel Stadium this season, he went 6-0 with a 1.95 earned-run average. He faced 317 batters and gave up nine home runs. At bat, he had 328 plate appearances and hit 26 home runs.

For the season, Ohtani has more home runs than Fernando Tatis Jr., more strikeouts than Max Fried and a better earned-run average than Clayton Kershaw. Ohtani ranks in the league’s top 10 in home runs, triples, walks and stolen bases.

“Listen, obviously, he’s been great,” Maddon said, “but it’s not easy to be that great annually, in both components of the game, for anybody — to be a great pitcher every year, or to be a great hitter or position player every year.”

For both Ohtani and the Angels, to figure the value of a contract extension would require determining what facets of this unprecedented season might be duplicated — even improved upon — and what facets might naturally be not as great as they have been this season.

“The energy is never ending,” Maddon said. “It’s incredible to watch him.

“It’s hard to really wrap your mind about what it’s going to be like next year. If I had to bet, it’s going to very similar, with good health.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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