Shohei Ohtani hopped off the mound and strode confidently toward the dugout after his fourth-inning strikeout of Isiah Kiner-Falefa on Tuesday night, the Angels right-hander having applied the finishing touches to an erratic but scoreless start that seemed to raise as much concern as hope.
The blister on the middle finger of Ohtani’s pitching hand that relegated the two-way star to just hitting for two weeks was not an issue, at least physically. Ohtani threw 80 pitches, five more than his soft 75-pitch limit, giving up one hit, striking out seven and walking six in a 6-2 win over the Texas Rangers.
While his average fastball velocity of 95.6 mph was down from 98.1mph in his previous start April 4, Ohtani’s final three four-seamers of the game clocked in at 97mph or above, and his split-fingered fastball was devastating, the finishing pitch to six of his seven strikeout victims.
But Ohtani had trouble locating his fastball and threw only 37 of 80 pitches for strikes. He fell behind at some point on 13 of the 19 batters he faced. Four walks came on four pitches.
He walked the bases loaded with one out in the first inning but struck out Nick Solak and Willie Calhoun on splitters to escape the jam. He walked Adolis Garcia and hit Brock Holt with a pitch with two outs in the fourth before whiffing Kiner-Falefa.
Ohtani was both wild and dominant, a combination that garnered a piece of history: Since 1901, there had never been a game in which a pitcher tossed at least four scoreless innings with at least seven strikeouts and six walks.
“Overall, I feel like I was battling myself and the blister more than I was battling the Texas lineup,” Ohtani said through an interpreter. “I would say my splitter was the only pitch that was actually working for me. The other pitches were all over the place, but I was able to get through the outing and prepare for my next start.”
Ohtani said “there were no issues” with the blister, but he acknowledged that it altered his approach.
He said the blister was caused by his four-seam fastball grip, so he threw a lower percentage of fastballs — 31 total, or 39% — than he did in his first start — 52 total for 56%.
Asked if he threw fewer fastballs because of the blister, Ohtani said, “Yes, that’s exactly it.”
And was the lower fastball velocity intentional?
“Yeah, I think lack of velo was due to me trying to avoid the whole blister thing,” Ohtani said. “But I also want to make good pitches with less velo.”
Ohtani made plenty of good pitches with his splitter but not enough good pitches overall. Asked how he would assess his control, Ohtani said, “I give it a zero out of 100.”
As shaky as he was, Ohtani gave the Angels a chance to win, an opportunity Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Kurt Suzuki seized by crushing homers to break open a close game.
The Angels took a 1-0 lead in the third inning when Scott Schebler doubled to left, took third on Suzuki’s fly to right and scored on David Fletcher’s sacrifice fly to right, narrowly beating Joey Gallo’s strong throw from the outfield.
Trout doubled to lead off the fourth, a catchable ball that dropped between left fielder David Dahl and center fielder Garcia, took third on Justin Upton’s single and scored on a wild pitch for a 2-0 lead.
Solak homered off Angels reliever Griffin Canning to make it 2-1 in the sixth, but Trout got that run back in the bottom of the inning when he clobbered his 39th career homer against the Rangers, a 446-foot shot to left-center that left his bat at 115.5 mph to make it 3-1.
“That thing,” manager Joe Maddon said, “was properly struck.”
Kiner-Falefa’s triple and Gallo’s shift-beating RBI bunt single pulled Texas to within 3-2 in the seventh, but Pujols sent a 446-foot solo shot to center, his 664th career homer, and Suzuki hit a towering, two-run shot to left in the bottom of the seventh for a 6-2 lead.
Mike Mayers (1-2/3 innings, three strikeouts) and Rasiel Iglesias covered the final 2-2/3 innings for the Angels.
Left-hander Jose Quintana hopes a little change of scenery — a move from the third-base side of the rubber to the first-base side — in Wednesday’s series finale will help shake a sluggish start in which he’s given up nine earned runs in five innings of his first two starts.
“We looked at where he’s been for the last few years when he’s had success and realized he was closer to the first-base side,” pitching coach Matt Wise said. “It makes it a little easier to command the breaking ball, we think his fastball plays a little better over there … and his changeup is just as good from that side.”
Quintana, who signed a one-year, $8-million deal in January, hasn’t pitched since April 10, when he was rocked for seven runs (five earned) and five hits in 1-2/3 innings of a 15-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla.
Some mental adjustments might help Quintana as much as a shift on the rubber.
“The biggest thing for me is being more assertive in the zone and getting ahead in counts,” Maddon said. “As he gets into those, we’re going to see better results.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.