April 21, 2024

As he threw batting practice to Shohei Ohtani on Friday, Dodgers third base coach Dino Ebel learned more about the superstar slugger based on what he did with bad pitches, not good ones.

Plenty of players, Ebel noted, can launch towering drive after towering drive at soft throws over the middle of the plate.

But on pitches that missed the heart of the zone Friday, Ohtani either laid off — a rare trait Ebel said spoke to the hitter’s efficient approach and purposeful work ethic — or made a quick and powerful adjustment in the box, sending them sailing through a bright morning sky all the same.

“He’s just so strong,” Ebel said afterward, an excited smile accompanying his recounting of the session. “I threw away, homer. I threw middle, homer. I threw middle-in, homer. He had a purpose with every swing he took … Every pitch had like a game-speed swing.”

Ohtani isn’t quite ready for live games yet, nor apparently live pitching.

While he was originally on the schedule to take his first live batting practice of the spring Friday — it would have been his first time facing a real pitcher since having elbow surgery last September — the two-time MVP instead went through only a normal batting practice session with Ebel.

The change of plans was nothing more than a clerical error, Ohtani later explained. He was never planning to take live BP on Friday. He said he is aiming to do so sometime next week.

Nonetheless, Ohtani is still trending toward being available on opening day. He is still ahead of schedule in his recovery from last year’s Tommy John surgery. And even in a routine batting practice Friday, he still put on a show for the several hundred fans and media members gathered to watch at Camelback Ranch.

Of his 26 swings, 13 were home runs.

During one round in the cage, he uncorked five long balls in a row on five swings.

“That was impressive,” Ebel said. “Exit velocity had to be through the roof today. Probably every time he hits, it’s like that.”

At least, every time this spring it has been.

Between his three batting practice sessions in the last week, Ohtani has hit 33 home runs on 76 total swings. On each occasion, his BP has attracted masses of coaches, team officials and media members.

Most of them have emerged with similar takeaways, noting how effortless Ohtani’s power looks at the plate, and how quickly he appears to progressing through his elbow recovery with his swing.

“He’s a lot further along than any of us not named Shohei would have expected,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s worked really hard, and is very diligent in his work.”

Indeed, Ohtani has approached each session with an obvious focus.

In his first BP last week, he had a nearby tablet displaying instant exit velocities (it rarely dipped below 100 mph), as well as a cell phone giving him other real-time feedback on each of his 10 swings.

The next two sessions have been similar, just with an increased number of swings — and attention.

During Friday’s session, Roberts at one point took out his own cell phone to film some of Ohtani’s drives, following the lead of dozens of spectators encircling the field .

Afterward, Ohtani posed for a photo with president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and his son, who was trailing his dad around the facility for the day.

On the mound, Ebel also watched on in amazement. In Ohtani’s rookie 2018 MLB season with the Angels, Ebel was in his final season as the third-base coach in Anaheim. Half-a-decade later, he has been struck by how different Ohtani looks — “He’s so much stronger now, visually,” Ebel said — and, more important, acts as one of the game’s biggest attractions.

“When he walks into a room, there’s a presence,” Ebel said. “He has a mission. He knows what his routine is. Everybody watches to see what he does. When you see that, I’m happy for him. Because when I first saw him to where he is today, and what he’s accomplished, for me he’s the best athlete and best baseball player in the world.”

That hasn’t stopped Ohtani from fitting into his new surroundings with the Dodgers, either.

All spring, Dodgers personnel have complimented Ohtani’s down-to-earth demeanor around the clubhouse. He has already surpassed expectations regarding his media availability, holding three press availabilities in less than two weeks (an early departure from his typical once-a-week, at most, media availability with the Angels).

Even during batting practice sessions, his rapport with teammates continues to grow.

On Friday, Ohtani initially headed to the wrong field at the Dodgers’ sprawling Camelback Ranch facility. When he was called back to the diamond where Ebel was pitching, Teoscar Hernández and others in his BP group laughed with him about the mix-up.

“They were like, ‘What are you doing?’” Ebel relayed with a laugh.

Later, after one of Ohtani’s few swings to not threaten the outfield fence — or the parking lot beyond it — infielder Miguel Rojas sarcastically shouted out, “No pop!” It immediately elicited a chuckle from the two-time MVP.

“That’s the kind of stuff I think he likes,” Ebel said. “He wants to be a part of that. Just because it’s Shohei, don’t shy away.”

Exactly what will come next in Ohtani’s ramp-up for the season is somewhat unclear. While he is planning to face live pitching next week, his availability for the Dodgers’ Feb. 22 Cactus League opener hasn’t yet been determined. Neither has the total number of preseason at-bats Ohtani is expected to get, with Roberts noting that the slugger might split time between official spring games and informal backfield scrimmages.

“I’m gonna start talking to him on what he likes, as far as his expectation to get ready for a major league season,” Roberts said. “Obviously game at-bats are important. But if we can get at-bats on a backfield, we can do that too.”

The one thing Roberts did say with certainty: “It seems like every single day, he keeps getting better and feels really good.”

Nowhere has that been more evident, so far, than in Ohtani’s show-stopping batting practice spectacles, which have already become the early highlight of Dodgers spring training.

“Certainly everyone wants to see him on a baseball field and playing. I get that,” Roberts said. “But the main thing is to get him ready for opening day. And I think that we’ve got plenty of time to do that.”

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