Shohei Ohtani is baseball’s forgotten wonder

Some fans love cycles. Some are indifferent to them. Some get annoyed whenever an announcer says a player is a “triple away from the cycle,” as if Chief Wilson or Willie Wilson or even Mookie Wilson were up and a triple was actually in the realm of possibility.

In the top of the seventh inning Thursday, Shohei Ohtani wasn’t a triple away from the cycle, but merely a single away, having homered in the first, doubled in the third and tripled in the fifth for the visiting Los Angeles Angels. In a terrific eight-pitch duel against Tampa Bay Rays reliever Hunter Wood, Ohtani fell behind in the count, worked it full with two good takes, fouled off two fastballs — one inside, one away — and then saw the first slider of the at-bat and lined a soft single into right-center.

It’s OK to admit that when Shohei Ohtani hits for the cycle, it feels like a much cooler achievement. Even Rays fans gave him a standing ovation:

Ohtani’s cycle in the Angels’ 5-3 victory also served as a nice reminder that last year’s two-way sensation is still worth paying attention to, even if he’s only hitting this season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Maybe only half his superpowers are in effect for now, but he’s back to being one of the game’s most exciting players.

Ohtani’s production at the plate as a rookie was a revelation as he hit .285/.361/.564 with 22 home runs in 326 at-bats. He didn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify for the official leaderboards, but his .564 slugging percentage would have ranked fourth in the American League behind only Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez and Mike Trout, and his .925 OPS would have ranked sixth, behind those three plus Jose Ramirez and Alex Bregman.

Ohtani didn’t make his 2019 debut until May 7, and when he got off to a slow start — .237 and two home runs in his first 19 games — we kind of forgot about him. We have short memories in baseball. There were new sensations to devote our highlight watching to. Of course, it didn’t help that the Angels were 26-29 at that point and once again looking more like a .500 team than a playoff contender.

After his 4-for-4 performance against the Rays, Ohtani is now hitting .281/.350/.512 with eight home runs. The designated hitter has been particularly hot the past 10 days or so:

Here’s the most impressive aspect to Ohtani’s game so far: He’s hitting left-handers — his first three hits Thursday came off Rays southpaw Ryan Yarbrough — something he didn’t do last season, when he hit .222 with two home runs in 99 at-bats against lefties. When Ohtani returned from the injured list, new manager Brad Ausmus made it clear he was going to play every day, and now he’s hitting .300/.383/.525 against lefties. This is the learning curve of a 24-year-old proving he’s a star hitter.

Oh, and that’s not even the primary reason every team in baseball wanted to sign Ohtani. He continues to progress in his rehab from his Tommy John surgery, and before Thursday’s game, Ausmus said Ohtani is “getting close” to throwing from a mound and could do so before the All-Star break. There is no timetable for a return to major league action — his surgery was Oct. 1, so that return might not come until next spring. Until then, we’ll just have to enjoy Ohtani as a one-way sensation.

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