Amazement for Shohei Ohtani has grown enormously over the last couple of seasons. He was the American League MVP in 2021, finished both second in MVP voting and fourth in Cy Young voting in 2022, and delivered a captivating performance in the 2023 World Baseball Classic to lead Japan to the title.
“With all due respect to all the athletes in the world, he has to be the best athlete,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said on Friday, prior to the start of a four-game series at Fenway Park against Ohtani and the Angels. “What he’s doing, what he did, is just amazing. I’m still in awe.”
Yet one member of the Red Sox was well aware of the gifts of the two-way star long before most in Major League Baseball. In 2016 and 2017, righthander Chris Martin pitched for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, the team for whom Ohtani starred in Japan.
Martin’s early impressions of Ohtani, who was 22 when they were teammates last?
“He was terrible. Not very good at baseball. Needed a lot of work,” Martin deadpanned. “Just kidding. Obviously he’s the best talent I’ve probably ever seen.”
Martin, the Hokkaido closer for the team’s title run in 2016, recalled with amazement a game where Ohtani homered in the first inning, then fired eight shutout innings.
“He didn’t need me to come in in the ninth, but pitch count must have been too high, so I got the save,” said Martin. “But he basically won the game by himself. You can’t say that about anybody else.”
There was no question about the rarity and impact of Ohtani. Martin noted Ohtani led Hokkaido to a title in 2016. Then, when injuries limited him to five starts as a pitcher and 65 games in the lineup, the Ham Fighters spiraled to a 60-83 record.
Still, Martin admitted that even with his vantage point, he never could have imagined Ohtani performing at the level at which he’s currently playing in MLB.
“I didn’t picture it like this,” said Martin. “This is a very hard league and he makes it look pretty easy at times. Guys that do that are just different.”
Bello’s good to go Monday
Righthander Brayan Bello, whose progression this spring was slowed by a few weeks due to mild discomfort in his elbow, is expected to come off the injured list to pitch against Ohtani for the Marathon Monday game.
“No problem,” Bello, who allowed one run over six innings for Triple A Worcester in a rehab start on Tuesday, said of the early starting time. “I’m ready to go.”
Bello felt particularly encouraged by his feel for his slider and a new curveball.
“I’m looking to give the hitter another look,” Bello said via translator Carlos Villoria-Benitez. “All my pitches [sinker, four-seamer, slider, and changeup] are fast. My curveball is a slower pitch that I can use to change the timing of the batter.”
With Bello slotted into the rotation for Monday, lefthander Chris Sale will get an extra day of rest before his next start Tuesday against the Twins. Corey Kluber will likewise get an extra day of rest before he starts the second game of the Minnesota series.
Healthy amount of updates
Lefthander James Paxton (hamstring) threw 3⅓ innings on Friday for Worcester, allowing two runs on four hits and two walks while striking out six. He topped out at 97 miles per hour. Cora said Paxton will make at least one more rehab start … While outfielder Adam Duvall expressed relief that he won’t need surgery to repair the distal fracture on his left wrist, he acknowledged a long rehab road ahead. “[It’s] maybe six weeks before I can swing again,” said Duvall, whose wrist is in a cast. “I’m going to keep running and keep throwing to stay in shape.” … Much to the surprise of reliever Zack Kelly, an MRI on his injured right elbow showed his ulnar collateral ligament is intact. Still, Kelly was guarded about the result given the discomfort he continues to feel since leaving Wednesday’s game against the Rays. “Everything apparently looks all right, but I’m not feeling like how the MRI showed. They said the ligament looks intact, which is good, but they can’t explain why it still hurts so bad. I’m good with whatever [the issue is]. I just want to know.” He’ll get a second opinion next week … Trevor Story arrived at a notable milestone in his return from the insertion in January of an internal brace in his right elbow. Cora said the shortstop — who is on the 60-day injured list, and is almost certainly out until at least July — has started throwing for the first time since the procedure … Masataka Yoshida (hamstring), who was out of the lineup for the third straight game on Friday, is expected to return to the lineup this weekend. The left fielder is eagerly anticipating facing off against Ohtani, his WBC teammate, in the Marathon Monday game. “I am honored to play with him at the best baseball stadium in the world,” Yoshida said through translator Keiichiro Wakabayashi.
Casas’s walk on the wild side
One day after Triston Casas let out a mighty yawp following a 14-pitch walk against the Rays, the Red Sox remained both impressed with the focus demonstrated by the rookie in the at-bat and amused by a virtually unprecedented reaction to a walk. “He battled. It was a good at-bat,” said Cora. “The emotion, I’ve never seen anything like that. Someone said my reaction in the dugout was priceless.” … The Red Sox wore their yellow and blue City Connect uniforms for the first time in 2023 as part of the kickoff of four days commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 2013 Boston Marathon … There will be a pregame ceremony Saturday to observe One Boston Day and to observe the 76th anniversary of April 15, 1947, the day Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier.