April 15, 2024

Shohei Ohtani ‘very relieved’ after crushing first home run as a Dodger with 430-foot shot

LOS ANGELES — Shohei Ohtani had come up to the plate 40 times in his brief Dodgers career, and had yet to hit a home run. He’d yet to sap a stadium of its breath, only to hear it explode as a ball zips well over a wall.

His swing. The crack of his bat. That sound has been heard many, many times. His homers captivate a ballpark in a way that others simply cannot.

This homer-less drought was starting to become uncomfortably long for a slugger who homered once every 13.6 plate appearances in his MVP campaign last season.

But his 430-foot shot at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night left zero doubt. Off his bat, it was instantaneously obvious that his season-starting slump had come to a close. Reliever Taylor Rogers, knowing he’d just made every highlight reel in America, could only look back helplessly to right-center field.

The solo homer put the Dodgers up by two runs in the seventh inning against the San Francisco Giants, and made the difference in a 5-4 Dodgers win.

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“Honestly I’m very relieved that I was able to hit my first homer. It’s been a while,” Ohtani said through an interpreter. “My swing hasn’t been great. So overall, very relieved.”

Ohtani said he met with the fan who caught the ball after the game. He handed over two caps, a bat and a different ball in exchange for the home run shot. It was a small price to pay for the memento of his first Dodgers home run.

“It’s a very special ball, a lot of feelings toward it,” Ohtani said. “I’m very grateful that it’s back.”

That home run ball will not only represent his first Dodgers homer, but also the stress and struggle that went into finally hitting it. After posting 171 blasts in his tenure with the Los Angeles Angels, it was starting to feel like his inaugural shot with his new team might never come.

Manager Dave Roberts acknowledged the natural pressure associated with the 10-year, $700 million free agent contract the 29-year-old superstar signed before this season. Home runs were a big part of the expectations assigned to him, and there might have been mounting pressure as that stat eluded him.

“There’s something to the human nature part of wanting to get off to a good start with the new team and obviously with the contract,” Roberts said after Ohtani’s homer. “But I think most important is that we’re winning baseball games. I think that’s something that helps the transition or the weight that you might feel.”

There’s been a lot weighing on Ohtani over the last month. The Dodgers fired his longtime friend and interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, amid allegations that he robbed Ohtani out of at least $4.5 million to pay off gambling debts. MLB is investigating the situation, as are federal law enforcement entities.

Roberts said he hasn’t seen that impact Ohtani. But he acknowledged it’s possible the player might have a good poker face about the situation. It’s hard to know how much correlation exists between those circumstances, and Ohtani’s paltry .631 OPS entering Wednesday’s game.

“He’s basically treading water, just kind of doing his thing,” Dodgers hitting coach Aaron Bates told The Athletic on Monday. “We’re still learning. Obviously as the games start to count and get more (real), hitters change a little bit as far as from spring training to the season. But his swing’s fine to me right now.”

Bates said he expects Ohtani to find more production as he becomes more familiar with the pitchers in the NL West. Bates also said Ohtani’s process in the cage has remained steadfast, keeping track of his exit velocities as a barometer for his success. This shot came off the bat at 105.6 miles per hour. A frozen rope that went halfway up the right field bleachers.

Ohtani has always been streaky. He notably hit 15 homers in June of last year. But has also been prone to weeks without that type of power. The timing of this slump, however, started to weigh on him.

“It was getting a little longer than my expectation,” Ohtani said. “During those situations, it’s easy to become anxious. I was overall relieved.”

This at-bat represented the final chance at Dodger Stadium before Los Angeles embarks on a six-game road trip to Chicago and Minnesota. Instead of having his first homer come in a road game without an adoring fanbase, he got off the schneid in front of a fanbase that’s supported him through a rocky few weeks.

The home run came against an unlikely opponent, too. Rogers, a southpaw, last gave up a long ball to a fellow left-hander in May of 2021. He said he got himself into a fastball count, and threw Ohtani the same pitch he’d thrown him the day prior — a sinker up and out. And the day before, Ohtani grounded out.

“I knew I was going to end up everywhere after it hit the bat,” Rogers said of his immediate reaction to Ohtani’s hit.

Before the game, Roberts was asked about Ohtani, as he usually is. “He’s just a tick off,” the skipper said. “But sometimes it just takes one swing.”

The comment raises an interesting question for the slugger. The narrative of his season has been one of an uncomfortable struggle. In one swing, he changed it. At least temporarily. So now that he’s got his first, what comes next?

Because when it comes to Ohtani, one home run often means another is not far behind.

Fabian Ardaya and Andrew Baggarly contributed to this report.

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(Photo: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)