ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Shohei Ohtani's final tune-up start before the regular season was by far his most encouraging.
The Los Angeles Angels' two-way sensation faced 22 batters and struck out six of them over the equivalent of five innings in an intrasquad game Sunday afternoon. Ohtani allowed just five singles, one of which was a high pop-up that should have been caught. He threw 72 pitches, 45 of them for strikes, and faced an extra batter or two on three occasions because he didn't throw enough pitches to record the first three outs.
Ohtani, who spent the 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery and serving as the Angels' designated hitter, is under the impression that he will make his first start of the season next Sunday on the road against the Oakland Athletics.
Ohtani will pitch once a week -- as opposed to every five games like a traditional starter -- and will not be in the lineup the days before or after his starts, a plan the Angels utilized successfully two years ago. Starting Ohtani on Sundays makes the most sense because three of the Angels' six off days are on Mondays, so that maximizes the number of games Ohtani will impact. With this plan, Ohtani is in line for 10 starts as a pitcher and 34 starts as a hitter.
"If things are going well, I don't really need a break," Ohtani said through his interpreter. "But if I have a bad outing or something, that extra day off is really good for me to lock it in as a hitter."
Ohtani walked seven batters and threw six wild pitches over the course of three innings during his first scrimmage on July 7, then walked four batters and hit another in 3 1/3 innings Monday. The 26-year-old right-hander said he has been "feeling better each time" but never expressed any concern with prior outings.
Ohtani was notably bad during his first spring training with the Angels in 2018, then put together a 3.10 ERA over the course of his first nine starts, striking out 61 and walking 20 in 49 1/3 innings. He was diagnosed with a Grade 2 sprain in his ulnar collateral ligament in June and had surgery less than four months later after injections of stem cells and platelet-rich plasma didn't fully heal his injury.
Ohtani spent almost the entirety of the 2019 calendar year going through his throwing progression, finishing around the middle of December after knee surgery caused a slight delay. He returned to his native Japan, then came back to the U.S. in late January and remained in Anaheim, California, throughout the three-month period that constituted baseball's coronavirus-pandemic-related suspension. He initially worked out in small groups and began facing teammates Tommy La Stella and David Fletcher after getting clearance for max-effort pitching in April.
Ohtani was noticeably slow to the plate and hesitant when facing a lot of the Angels' regulars in his first scrimmage start, fearful of injuring one of his teammates with a fastball inside. The Angels addressed the concern by having him face younger players in his second start, which saw Ohtani quicken his delivery in an effort to simplify his mechanics.
Angel Stadium operators piped in fake noise for Ohtani's third start, using a variety of chants, whistles and synchronized claps to emulate a sold-out crowd. Ohtani faced mostly Matt Thaiss, Michael Hermosillo, Taylor Ward and top prospect Jo Adell. He lost count of the outs in the first inning and gave up two bases on an errant pickoff throw in the second but was far less erratic throughout. New Angels pitching coach Mickey Callaway previously said Ohtani's fastball sat mostly in the 94- to 96-mph range during this period and he expects it to ramp up even more when games start to count.
The first glimpse is only a week away.
"Obviously, I'm very excited to get back on the mound. It's been almost two years," Ohtani said. "But before that, I wanna be prepared to be in the lineup on Opening Day as a hitter."