After Shohei Ohtani gave up his fourth homer of the game, he returned to the Angels dugout and grabbed a helmet in case his turn to bat came up.
He was smiling.
Ohtani had never previously allowed as many home runs in a single game, but he didn’t seem to mind. The Angels were ahead.
“A win is a win,” Ohtani later said in Japanese.
In the wake of an 8-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday night, the Angels were only four games behind the Toronto Blue Jays for the third and final wild card spot.
Owner Arte Moreno has a little more than a week to decide whether to exchange Ohtani for a small army of prospects, but his choice should already be made.
Short of a complete cave-in between now and the Aug. 1 trade deadline, the Angels can’t trade Ohtani.
They can’t throw in the towel on their season — because Ohtani hasn’t.
“This is my sixth year,” he said. “My feelings haven’t changed about wanting to go to the playoffs with this team and win once we’re there.”
With. This. Team.
Ohtani didn’t say he wanted to just go to the playoffs. He said he wanted to go to the playoffs with the Angels.
He went on to add a series of qualifiers, about how the decision wasn’t his, about how he has no idea what the Angels are thinking, about how he doesn’t even know whether they will be buyers or sellers.
Still, in his postgame media scrum on this night, he conveyed the same feelings he has in recent weeks through his play on the field.
He wants to play October baseball with the Angels.
“I think we’re in a position where we can still make it,” he said.
“My feelings haven’t changed about wanting to go to the playoffs with this team and win once we’re there.”
— Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani on his goals
He said before that he wanted to play meaningful games in September. The Angels aren’t there yet, but they’re now playing meaningful games in July. Their win on Friday was their fourth in a row.
“Last year and the year before, by this time, we were totally sellers,” Ohtani said. “Honestly, we were on the side of watching key players getting traded. The team’s morale is completely different, of course. Being in the kind of position we’re in this year and being in a position where we have absolutely no chance, I think there’s a difference in the team’s intensity on a play-by-play basis.”
None of this assures the Angels that Ohtani will re-sign with them when he becomes a free agent this winter. Ohtani said he hadn’t told the team he would be open to signing a new deal with them.
But this isn’t about the future. This is about the present.
The Angels have a chance of making the playoffs. They have Ohtani and they could have Mike Trout back in another month.
Isn’t this what the Angels always wanted?
The Angels had a 15.1% possibility of reaching the postseason after their series-opening win over the Pirates, according to FanGraphs Baseball.
The number crunchers in the game say the Angels would be smart to punt on their season and start building toward a more sustainable future. They say holding onto Ohtani would be stupid, especially when there’s a very real possibility they could lose him for nothing in the winter.
But the Angels aren’t poker players or bankers. They’re in the entertainment business and part of what their business sells is the possibility of the impossible, of the chance the eventual World Series champions will be a team with a 15.1% probability of reaching the playoffs.
There’s no guarantee the Angels will be a wild card team with Ohtani, but there’s also no guarantee the prospects they would receive for him will be impact players in the major leagues. Last year, the Angels were offered a package of prospects from the New York Yankees that included Jasson Dominguez. The hotshot prospect entered this weekend batting .216 in double A.
And if the Angels trade Ohtani, they might as well also trade closer Carlos Estevez and second baseman Brandon Drury. Estevez and Drury could also provide significant returns on the trade market, as both are under contract for next season at below-market rates. Estevez will earn just $6.75 million in 2024, Drury $8.5 million. But if the Angels wait until right before the trade deadline to decide what to do with Ohtani, they might not have the necessary time to strike the best deals possible for Estevez and Drury.
The Angels might as well play out the season with the players they have. They owe it to their fans, they owe it to themselves and they owe it to Ohtani.
The team’s position on the fringes of the wild card race has brought out the version of Ohtani that dominated the World Baseball Classic this year.
When he hit a game-tying two-run homer in an eventual extra-innings victory over the Yankees last week, he flipped his bat high in the air and howled as he rounded the bases.
Against the Pirates on Friday, he scored from first base on a fourth-inning double by Mickey Moniak, leaping in the air and sliding feet-first to home. An inning later, he reached base on a strikeout when catcher Endy Rodriguez failed to block pitcher José Hernández’s wild pitch.
The Pirates walked him three times, but Ohtani said he has learned to accept not being pitched to.
“They’re leading to results and they’re leading to wins for the team. The more I score, the more we have those kinds of chances [to win]. I think that’s good.
“Of course, you want to get a hit. If you play baseball, it’s more fun to get a hit than a walk. Of course, a home run is more fun. But for me, as a hitter, I think walks could be one of the two most important things over the course of an entire year.”
Ohtani sounded like he was doing whatever he could to win. He’s played like it, too. Moreno and the Angels’ baseball operations department should have the same mentality.