DENVER — Welcome to Shohei Ohtani’s All-Star Game, an occupation so welcomed, so appreciated, that Major League Baseball is making up rules on the fly to accommodate this phenomenon.
In this post-COVID season, with so many star players backing out of the sport’s annual showcase Tuesday night at Coors Field, Ohtani will start on the mound and hit leadoff for the American League, a historic Midsummer Classic first. In the lineup, Ohtani’s position will be listed as designated hitter even though the rules clearly forbid such a classification. If you let your pitcher hit, traditionally, then you forfeit your DH.
No forfeit here, not with Ohtani easily the game’s most compelling player and with the only stakes here some prize money for the winning club. And so Ohtani will be another fitting first: A DH-P in the boxscore, or P-DH.
“We all know Shohei was voted in as the DH and he was one of five starting pitchers voted in by the players. I kind of took that to heart,” Rays manager Kevin Cash, who will lead the AL club, said Monday at a news conference. “I think we would all respect what he’s done and meant to our game this year. This is what the fans want to see. It’s personally what I want to see. And to have the opportunity to do something that’s a generational talent, pretty special.
“I begged Major League Baseball to tweak the rule for [Tuesday’s] game, because if they didn’t, I know I’d screw it up the rest of the way, pulling pinch-hitters and DHs. For this game, we’re going to be allowed to use Shohei as two players. He will be the starting pitcher and the DH, and when he’s done pitching, he can remain in the game, and then we can transfer in the next DH after his day is over at the plate.”
If that sounds convoluted, it’s far less head-exploding than the very concept of Ohtani’s two-way dominance. His 33 home runs and .698 slugging percentage pace the major leagues, and his 11.69 strikeouts per nine innings place him ninth among those who have logged as many as his 67 innings or more. If he isn’t necessarily the best starting pitcher in the AL — the White Sox’s Lance Lynn and the Rangers’ Kyle Gibson are among those arguably more deserving in a vacuum of the starting assignment — he’s too enticing a phenomenon to not serve up to the crowd, especially with the Japan TV audience expected to set records cheering on its native son.
“I wasn’t expected to be chosen as a pitcher, but I was,” Ohtani — who also participated in Monday night’s Home Run Derby, getting knocked out in a dramatic first-round swing-off against the Nationals’ Juan Soto — said through a translator, “and Kevin right here and everyone has very high expectations for me. And I just want to match those expectations.”
The buildup to Tuesday’s main event featured myriad tributes to Ohtani’s astonishing accomplishments. When news conference emcee Brian Kenny of the MLB Network asked National League manager Dave Roberts whether he thought it would be possible for Ohtani to excel both ways, Roberts said of his Dodgers, “We did. We wanted him.” Cash quickly piped in, “So did we. So did we.”
Future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer of the Nationals, starting for the NL, marveled and self-mocked: “It would be awesome for me if I could get a hit. I’m 0-for-the first half this year. Just the fact that he can pitch, the demands on your body to be a pitcher are intense to say the least, I can definitely speak to that. So to be able to shoulder those workloads and also be able to hit as well, that’s just absolutely incredible. It takes an unbelievable athlete to be able to accomplish that, and that’s what he is. He’s an incredible athlete and that’s why I feel like you’re seeing some of these historic things come out of this first half and what he was able to do.
“He’s must-watch baseball any time he’s on the field.”
The other 63 players here aren’t all chopped liver. Among the game’s dynamic young stars set to participate are the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr., the Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, along with elder statesmen like the Braves’ Freddie Freeman and the Royals’ Salvador Perez. However, it’s the presence of Ohtani, primarily, that soothes the pain of huge names like the Mets’ Jacob deGrom and the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts bowing out as well as injuries shelving high-end brand names like the Angels’ Mike Trout and the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. No one else in this game, after all, gets compared to Babe Ruth.
“It’s a huge honor to be compared to somebody like that,” Ohtani said of the Sultan of Swat. “All I can do is try my best and see how my season and career ends up.”
For now, the game will settle — it will compromise, without objection — for him serving as this game’s centerpiece.