OAKLAND, Calif. — The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This may very well be a different Angels team. A deeper team. A roster constructed to win. That’s the vision the Angels’ manager, front office and players have sold their fans throughout the offseason.
The Angels found ways to lose in 2022 despite MVP-caliber years from their top superstars. The offense. The bullpen. The defense. There was always something.
Things may be very different in 2023. In fact, they should be different. But for the first night, it felt like nothing had changed in a dispiriting 2-1 loss to Oakland.
The Angels got a spectacular performance on the mound from Shohei Ohtani. He threw six shutout innings while striking out 10 batters. A masterful performance from an ace with so much on the line this year. He also got a hit.
The Angels mustered just four more on the night, none for extra bases. Facing an Opening Day starter with major-league innings under his belt, they scored one run. And the Angels bullpen fumbled in the eighth inning. Aaron Loup allowed two runs on two hits, and the Angels couldn’t come back.
“Embarrassing, honestly,” Loup said of his performance. “Probably the most embarrassing outing of my career. … I was out there pitching scared, like a little b—-.”
Every team in every year will tell you it’s an important season. And for good reason. But there’s no arguing against the particularly high stakes that accompany the Angels this year. So much of that revolves around Ohtani.
The Angels’ future hinges on their ability to retain Ohtani beyond this season. Their ability to win this season hinges on Ohtani’s ability to deliver. And Ohtani’s free-agent contract will also be tied to his performance.
Ohtani will be at the center of everything this season. But, as has been proved time and again over the past two-plus seasons, he can’t do it all himself. It was proved again on a chilly Thursday evening in Northern California.
“We got a lot of guys on base, got a few guys in scoring position,” Ohtani said. “But we just lacked that one big hit. Obviously, we wanted to score more.”
The biggest Oakland threat came in the fourth inning. Seth Brown hit a double to left field. Aledmys Díaz was running from first. He had a chance to score but was held at third.
A curious choice, surely. Yes, there was only one out. But Ohtani is good at striking out batters. Particularly when he needs a strikeout. And particularly against a strikeout-prone hitter like Jesús Aguilar. He promptly struck out. Then Ramón Laureano did the same.
ユニコーン 🦄 pic.twitter.com/6P4juvGyVg
— Los Angeles Angels (@Angels) March 31, 2023
Mike Trout said, watching from center field, that Ohtani went from dominant to unhittable.
The Angels offense wasn’t producing. But Ohtani held serve. He continually held up his end of the bargain. As he’s so wont to do, the 28-year-old K’d his final batter of the game. It came on an 83 mph sweeper on the outside corner.
Can’t touch it if you swing. But a strike if you don’t. Damned either way.
The A’s and their paltry offense waited out the MVP favorite. He could only do so much. The Angels bullpen and offense could have backed up his effort. But they didn’t.
“We’re going to score more runs,” Angels manager Phil Nevin said. “I’m not worried about that. Just opening night, and baseball gets weird sometimes. We’re going to swing the bats. We’re going to score a lot of runs.”
The message from the manager won’t change after one game. But he knows the guarantees won’t matter until it happens. The Angels lost many games in this fashion before. The “Tungsten Arm” O’Doyle meme isn’t a manifestation out of thin air. It might be fake. But it’s rooted in something real.
MLB researcher Sarah Langs noted that there have been 26 openers since 1901 in which a pitcher has struck out at least 10 batters and not allowed a run. This game represented the only time that pitcher’s team lost the game.
Point being: The Angels haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt. Even with an improved team on paper. What they showed on the field in game one took on a familiar script.
“I mean, it’s the first game,” Trout said. “So let’s go get ’em on Saturday. We had some opportunities but hit the ball right at people.”
And that is true, particularly for Trout. He easily could have had three hits but finished with none. Three well-struck balls. Sometimes that’s the difference.
The good news for the Angels is things tend to even out over the course of 162 games. If this offense truly is good, and if this team truly is different, that will become evident as the season goes along.
The facts are what they are. The Angels need to prove this year that they can back up the prowess for Ohtani. For success this year. But also for any chance of retaining Ohtani beyond this season.
This first game provided an excellent opportunity to set the tone. Ohtani was elite. He generated 13 swings-and-misses. He elevated his velocity in critical moments. He rose to the occasion when that occasion presented itself.
The Angels, however, did not. There will be many more opportunities. The first chance came with a resounding thud.
(Photo of Shohei Ohtani: Kyle Terada / USA Today)
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