Anything for Shohei, they say, and so Miki Taguchi and Grace Kramp were packed into a store line at Angel Stadium, the two middle-aged women far from the concrete and clouds of home in Chicago.
Sure, they tried to pop up at every White Sox game when the Angels were in town. Not enough. They’d driven to Kansas City, and showed up in Anaheim Friday night just to see Shohei Ohtani pitch. Anywhere to catch the shooting star.
An uncertainty hangs within these summer nights at Angel Stadium, a thickening tension that the Angels might sputter and slide in the standings and have no choice but to trade the best player in baseball. That come August 1, the Taguchis and Kramps and super-fans covered in mini Ohtani-heads might not be coming around anymore. So a swell came when Ohtani walked off the mound in Friday night’s start against the Pirates despite a crooked ledger — despite an improbable four homers surrendered in an 8-5 win.
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An ovation that felt not like a celebration for a pitcher who’d given up five earned runs in 6⅓ innings. An ovation that felt like a celebration for a pitcher who could, under an avalanche of outside musings pressing in on a tight-lipped clubhouse, be making his final start of six enrapturing years at Angel Stadium.
Ohtani, of course, guards tight the innermost workings of his mind in postgame scrums, and was mum on most talks of the future after Friday’s start. That final home-start potential hadn’t crossed his mind. He hadn’t sat down with the Angels for a conversation on re-signing a contract. He’d had conversations about the trade rumors with his teammates but nothing serious.
“We’re in an uncertain position where we don’t know whether we’ll be buyers or sellers,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, “so it’s never anything more than a joke.”
And members of the organization, from manager Phil Nevin to newly-acquired third baseman Mike Moustakas — the 34-year-old from Chatsworth who, after a three-run shot Friday, has five homers in 17 games since being acquired in June — vehemently deny they feel pressure to win ahead of the trade deadline.
But winning, undoubtedly, tethers the Angels tighter to Ohtani, who’s made it clear he wants to compete.
“It’s up to the front office, it’s not really up to us… it’s going to happen if it’s going to happen,” said Angels reliever Tucker Davidson about a potential Ohtani trade.
“If we put ourselves in that situation, well, we did it to ourselves,” Davidson continued. “And we don’t want to do that to ourselves. We just have to go out there each day and try to get a W.”
They did Friday, one step up the wild-card rung, in spite of a few Ohtani pitches that sat too pretty in the zone against the Pirates. The finger issue — a cracked nail and blister issues — that had pulled him early from previous starts wasn’t a factor, Nevin said. The manager believed fatigue from multiple trips around the bases was to blame.
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“I mean, he’s human,” Nevin said.
At times, Ohtani seemed confused by that idea Friday. He licked his fingers repeatedly after a cutter and a sweeper led to back-to-back no-doubters from Ji-Man Choi and Henry Davis in the top of the fourth. He stared, lips tightened, after a Jack Suwinski blast in the top of the fifth. He paused, legs splayed in a split and shaking his head, as Davis roped a fastball over the wall in the sixth.
But four Angel homers — rookie Trey Cabbage hit the first of his career shortly after Moustakas’ fourth-inning drive, and Zach Neto and Taylor Ward added blasts in the fifth — still made for a triumphant walk off the home mound.
There’s just the chance it’s his last.
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.