It sure was clever in “The Natural” when Roy Hobbs belted the ball into the stadium clock, smashing it. A great moment in a fanciful story.
Shohei Ohtani has been making the fanciful seem real.
With the bases loaded in the eighth inning of his Angels’ game in Boston on Thursday, he smacked the ball off Fenway Park’s manual scoreboard, dislodging one of the numbers there.
The scoreboard had a 17 posted to indicate the current Angels pitcher, Ohtani. When his drive hit the board with force, the other numbers stayed in place, but 17, as if by forethought, dropped. Ohtani had made an impact on Fenway Park that almost crossed into the cinematic.
A quick play by outfielder Alex Verdugo, along with the clogged basepaths, limited the eye-opening smash to a single.
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(Ohtani had another bizarrely long single earlier in the game when his deep fly ball was lost in the sun and fell for a hit. The runner on first had delayed to see if it would be caught.)
Ohtani’s batting line ended up 2 for 4 with a run and an RBI in an 8-0 victory. And yes, as the scoreboard indicated, he was also the starting pitcher and was more than a little useful in that role. In his first career start at Fenway, he gave up six hits and no runs in seven innings with 11 strikeouts and no walks.
“I was looking forward to pitching here,” he told reporters through an interpreter. To the Red Sox that feeling may have been foreboding.
Ohtani, who won the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award last year thanks to his two-way brilliance, is off to a bit of a slow start in the season’s first 26 games. He is hitting .240 with four home runs (he had 46 last season). On the mound he has been stronger, with a 3-2 record that shortchanges his 3.08 ERA and the fact that he has allowed only 1.03 walks and hits per inning pitched.
A few humdrum early stats have hardly taken away from the wow factor. Since he has been doing it for a year, fans might still need to sometimes remind themselves of the remarkable fact: Shohei Ohtani is a starting pitcher who bats for himself and is his team’s designated hitter on the days he does not pitch.
That has given him a string of superlatives that often include the line “first since Babe Ruth.” (And it happens that Ruth did a lot of his pitching at Fenway, when he was a member of the Red Sox.)
“I hope we don’t start taking that for granted like it’s old hat,” Angels Manager Joe Maddon said after the game. “It’s just so unusual. It’s otherworldly on this level; of this game, which is I think the most difficult game.”
And Angels fans will be more focused on some other numbers: Despite the presence of the consensus best player in baseball, Mike Trout, the team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014. But with the second best record in the American League, the team looks set to break that slide.
Leaving the open question: What will Ohtani possibly do in the playoffs?
Just for reference, Roy Hobbs — who wowed onlookers earlier in the film with his pitching ability by striking out a fictionalized version of Ruth — finished his memorable season by smashing the stadium lights with a home run. It almost seems possible.