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Shohei Ohtani made one small step on his way to MLB success

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Eric Hinske began by leaving Shohei Ohtani alone. He sat back and watched the 23-year-old two-way phenom get swallowed up by major league fastballs inside and above the belt for the better part of four weeks. Only then did he suggest the drastic mechanical adjustment that ultimately would make all the difference.

Shortly after the Los Angeles Angels wrapped up spring training in Arizona, Hinske, in his first season as the team’s hitting coach, asked Ohtani whether he would consider ditching his traditional high leg kick and replacing it with a subtle toe tap. The Freeway Series, an annual three-game set of exhibition games against the crosstown Los Angeles Dodgers, was ongoing. Opening Day stood three days away.

But Ohtani kept an open mind, enough so that he gave the recommendation a pregame test run at Dodger Stadium on the afternoon of March 26.

“He did it in batting practice that day, and he was hitting homers all over the field,” Hinske recalled. “He said, ‘OK, I’m in.’ And that was it.”

That adjustment — made as late as it was — has given credibility to Ohtani’s quest to pull off something that hasn’t been done in the major leagues in 100 years.

A little more than four weeks in, Ohtani has a 4.43 ERA in 20⅓ innings and a .333 batting average in 42 at-bats. It is exceedingly early, but Ohtani already looks like a different player from the one who struggled to get outs on the mound and record hits at the plate against inferior talent in the build-up to the regular season.

Those around Ohtani say he has raised his intensity noticeably on the mound. Growing accustomed to the steeper mounds and the flatter seams of American baseball, and throwing off-speed pitches into air that isn’t as dry as it is in Arizona, also has helped. At the plate, his success stems mostly from a front foot that has set everything else in motion.

“Whatever you can do to get on time,” Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun said of the process of a hitter beginning his swing. “I think he was exposed a little bit, I guess, in the beginning with his leg kick and trying to time everything up. Right when he put his foot down, it’s like everything sank up and he was able to use his hands, and you’ve seen what has happened since then.”

Naoyuki Yanagihara is a journalist for Sports Nippon Newspapers who followed Ohtani closely in Japan and is now covering his every move in Southern California. When asked whether he was surprised to see Ohtani ditch the leg kick that is so popular among his countrymen, Yanagihara nodded in affirmation.

“He’s never done what he’s doing right now,” Yanagihara said through an interpreter. “Since he was in high school, he’s always had that high leg kick.”

After a January workout in Japan, shortly before he would embark on a 5,000-mile journey to a new country and a tougher league, Ohtani stood before the Japanese media and said he would maintain his swing and his approach unless he hit a proverbial wall. That wall came in spring training, when he went 4-for-32 with 10 strikeouts in Cactus League play.

Hinske suggested the toe tap largely because Ohtani, at 6 feet 4, is big and strong enough that he doesn’t need the momentum of a high leg kick to drive pitches consistently. Himself a left-handed hitter with a subtle leg kick, Hinske saw Freddie Freeman and Kris Bryant generate prodigious power without an exaggerated kick, and he believed Ohtani could do the same.

Keeping the front foot down eliminates moving parts and excess head movement, simplifying the approach and making it easier for hitters to stay in tune with their mechanics. In Calhoun’s mind, “it simplifies everything.”

“When you have a high kick, it’s hard to time yourself,” Angels first baseman Albert Pujols said. “You have to be consistent, man. You have to be really consistent with your swing when you have a high leg kick. And it’s hard.”

Angels players are still getting to know Ohtani on a personal level, but they have been blown away by his talent — by the ease with which he throws 100 mph, by the way balls fly off his bat, by his speed around the bases.

They find him uncommonly humble, but also surprisingly inquisitive.

When they first met in spring training, Ohtani told Calhoun, one of few left-handed hitters on the Angels, that he had watched a lot of video from his at-bats. Two weeks in, he asked Pujols about his own toe tap. Pujols told him how much easier it is to recognize pitches and be on time with your swing without having to worry about your stride, a thought that remained with Ohtani when Hinske suggested the tweak several weeks later.

“He’s a sponge, man,” said Hinske, a 12-year major leaguer who spent four seasons as a coach with the Chicago Cubs. “He wants to learn. He wants to learn the American way.”

The concern, really, isn’t that Ohtani isn’t good enough to succeed as both a pitcher and a hitter; it’s whether he’ll get enough reps to remain consistent at the latter.

As things stand, Ohtani basically will take three days off from hitting each week. One is the day he serves as the starting pitcher. But there’s also the day before he starts, when Ohtani says he is solely “focusing on pitching.” And then there’s the day after he starts, which Ohtani calls a “recovery day.” It’s the same schedule he followed in Japan.

“Nothing has changed,” Ohtani said through his interpreter. “I think it’s fine.”

Angels manager Mike Scioscia acknowledged the mental drain of remaining an effective hitter while maintaining a starting pitcher’s routine, though he also downplayed Ohtani’s infrequent batting practice schedule.

“He’s getting plenty of looks in games, and he does a lot more work than you guys see,” Scioscia said. “Trust me.”

But hitting is a daily rhythm. There’s a certain consistency and repetition that typically is required in order to have a chance to succeed at this level. Major league hitters generally take batting practice every day they are healthy, which makes one wonder about Ohtani and his new mechanics.

“I don’t know how he’s going to maintain it,” Pujols said. “That’s the hard part.”

“I don’t think anybody said what he’s trying to do is going to be easy,” Calhoun added. “I mean, pitchers throw every day and hitters hit every day. To try and do both, and give your body the ample time to rest in between each time, it’s definitely going to be hard. But what he’s done so far …”

Yeah, there is that.

Ohtani already is showing that he shouldn’t be judged by the limitations of others. He’s doing what hasn’t been accomplished — heck, what hasn’t even been attempted — since Babe Ruth in 1919. He’s doing it as a rookie in a new country, with what feels like the entire world watching.

As if all that weren’t enough, he incorporated a major mechanical adjustment to his swing only days before his major league debut.

“To make an adjustment like that, it’ll take guys time to get it down,” Calhoun said. “And it’s like he put his foot down and hit the ground running.”

Hinske was asked about the concern of suggesting such a drastic change so close to the start of the season.

“I knew he could handle it,” Hinske said. “I wouldn’t have suggested it if I didn’t think he could handle it.”

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My 5-year-old couldn’t go to a New York Mets game this year — so I sent him to all of them

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In May, my 5-year-old son and I draped his bedroom in blankets from wall to wall, crawled inside and flew our imaginary ship all over the world. Jacob chose to visit places we couldn’t go because of the coronavirus, and we landed on the roof of Grandma’s house in the country and on the tippy top of Big Ben in London — so our first mate, Paddington, could see his city.

The baseball season was on hold at the time, so we didn’t swoop into Yankee Stadium or Citi Field, but those were two more favorite places we couldn’t go together this year. Among the sacrifices and losses of this pandemic, not being able to take your son to a baseball game is nowhere near the top of the list. Still, I missed going with him, and with his baby brother, Peter. Especially because, though Jacob knows baseball has something vaguely to do with his dad’s job, he’s recently begun to develop a bit more of a big-kid interest in the sport, asking new, more sophisticated questions about the games as we watch on TV.

Jacob is particularly curious about how the Houston Astros used cameras to cheat. He’s obsessed with cartoon villains and their evil robots and flying factories. He’s got an out-of-this-world imagination and loves to cause mischief himself, most notably by spying on his mom and dad. He’s terrible at it — he’ll crawl all over my feet when he’s under my desk “spying” on me while I work — but I play along and he loves it. We love it.

Which made the idea of seeing his face in a place he couldn’t go this year, spying on the New York Mets all season long as a cardboard cutout, irresistible. When I heard about the cutouts, an idea adopted by more than half the teams across Major League Baseball this past season — and in the Mets’ case, with proceeds going to the team’s charity — I asked him to pose for a quick photo. I didn’t tell him why. I didn’t want to disappoint him if he never got to see it. Then I bought one.

Not long after, I got an email that Jacob’s cutout had been installed at Citi Field. I couldn’t wait to catch a glimpse of it. I wrote to the Mets asking for a location — or better yet, a photo — but initially they weren’t providing that information.

So I took advantage of one small perk of my job as an ESPN MLB editor — unfettered access to hi-res game photos. In my spare time, I must have scoured hundreds of photos and videos of Mets home games looking for Jacob. I never found him.

And then, when I’d mostly settled on it being enough just to know that he was there, the Mets sent me his exact seat number and section. He was in a prime home-run spot in left field.

Later I’d catch glimpses of him in highlight videos, including Pete Alonso‘s Subway Series walk-off against the New York Yankees in September — but first I found this photo, taken by Mike Stobe of Getty Images:

I zoomed waaaayyyy in — and there was Jacob. With the long-awaited photo finally in hand, I did some intentionally low-fi editing and ended up with this:

I couldn’t stop laughing. I sent it to Jacob’s mom and grandparents and aunts and uncles and my coworkers and just about everyone else. It was also time to tell Jacob. I wasn’t sure if he’d appreciate it, but I figured he’d at least have a typically unexpected way of seeing it.

I was right.

“But Dad,” he said when I proudly showed him the photo, “where are you?”


The team was generous and green enough to not just toss thousands of cutouts in the bin, instead letting fans safely stop by and take theirs home. So the morning of Game 7 of the NLCS, we drove up to Mets fan cutout pickup day.

We waited about 45 minutes, inching along Seaver Way, wearing our masks, eventually pulling up to Station 3 in front of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda.

A Mets employee — I didn’t catch his name — took our info and disappeared for a bit. He returned with Jacob’s cutout and, knowing precisely what all the excited dads like me wanted, held it above his head for a photo.

Jacob loved it. We were on our way to a timed-entrance Halloween event at the Bronx Zoo and he was wearing his pirate costume. He took off his skull-and-crossbones hat and placed it on his cardboard cutout’s head.

“I want to put it on the ceiling,” he declared, “so I can look up and see it from my bed.”

That evening, we took it home, and, at least for the time being, I rested it on top of Jacob’s bookcase, right behind the T-ball trophy every kid in his league got last year but of which he’s inordinately proud. He didn’t get to play T-ball this year.

I read him a bedtime book and went down to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves in Game 7. I thought about what he’d said when I told him I’d bought the cutout and what it meant. How he’d asked, before anything else, where his dad was.

Part of me wished I’d gotten two — or even a third, for his little brother. I didn’t get to sit next to my sons at any ballgames this year.

We could have it a whole lot worse. And, if our luck holds, I’ll be sitting with them next year. For real.

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Next stop, MLB? Five players to watch in the KBO playoffs

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The most high-profile season in Korea Baseball Organization history begins its full charge toward the Korean Series on Sunday. With the start of the KBO playoffs, the spotlight will be on many of the league’s biggest stars — some of whom might be playing in the major leagues as early as next season.

The KBO playoffs are a bit different than MLB’s format. The top five teams in the standings qualify, but the first-place NC Dinos get an automatic bye to the best-of-seven Korean Series — the KBO’s version of the World Series — and the rest is a ladder bracket to decide who faces them. The second through fifth seeds: the KT Wiz, Doosan Bears, LG Twins and Kiwoom Heroes, respectively.

Here are five players to watch in the KBO playoffs (starting at 1 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPNews and the ESPN app) who might be making their MLB mark sooner rather than later.

Ha Seong Kim, shortstop, Kiwoom Heroes

Kim is in his sixth full season as a starter with the Heroes, the same organization that produced former major leaguers Jung Ho Kang and Byung Ho Park, and appears destined to pursue opportunities in MLB after the season. Scouts believe Kim can play shortstop every day, but could also man second or third base, and he’s expected to rank in the top half of ESPN insider Kiley McDaniel’s upcoming free-agent rankings.

In 137 games this season, Kim hit a career-high 30 homers with 109 RBIs while batting .308/.399/.526 with 24 doubles and 23 stolen bases.

“I would say he’s the best player in KBO right now, all around,” said KBO reporter Daniel Kim. “He’s only 25, but he has a ton of experience. So he’ll be ready for the postseason. But he hasn’t had his moment yet in KBO in terms of doing like Mookie Betts in the World Series type things.”

Kim has previously expressed his interest in making the jump to the major leagues, though he noted at the time that some KBO fans were questioning his ability to thrive there.

“[Byung Ho Park] told me that not many players can actually do it,” Kim told Korea’s JoongAng Daily last December. “He encouraged me by telling me that I should give it a try if I can get that chance, and that helped me gain confidence. Even if it’s not an easy path, I’m the one going down that path, so I’m going to care less about [the negative comments] and go my own way.”

Sung Bum Na, outfielder, NC Dinos

The 31-year-old Na is one of the most complete players in the KBO, hitting .318/.385/.543 over the course of his eight seasons, and hitting .330/.397/.604 with 32 homers and 108 RBIs in 124 games this season. The left-handed-hitting Na has long been the subject of speculation over a leap to the bigs.

“The players that have played with him and against him that have major league experience, they feel he could hold a roster spot at the major league level,” said Daniel Kim. “He’s had some hamstring issues late in the season, but the NC Dinos are going to get a big break here because as [the] first place [team], they got an automatic bid to the Korean Series.”

Raul Alcantara, pitcher, Doosan Bears

The 27-year-old Alcantara has had experience in the majors with the Oakland Athletics in 2016 and 2017, posting a 7.19 ERA in 46 1/3 innings over 13 games and nine starts, but the right-hander has spent the past two seasons in the KBO, pitching for the Wiz in 2019 and the Bears in 2020.

After posting a 4.01 ERA in 27 starts in his first KBO season, Alcantara took things to another level in 2020, with a 2.78 ERA and a 1.056 WHIP in 29 starts. The signings of former KBO pitchers Josh Lindblom, by the Milwaukee Brewers, and Merrill Kelly, by the Arizona Diamondbacks, might have opened a path for Alcantara to turn his KBO success into a spot on an MLB roster.

“I know teams are looking at him right now,” said Daniel Kim. “He’s a name out there this offseason [to follow Lindblom and Kelly].”

Baek Ho Kang, outfielder, KT Wiz

The 21-year-old left fielder is one of the brightest young stars in the KBO. Born in Seoul, he won the KBO’s Rookie of the Year award in 2018, setting a rookie record for homers with 29. He continued mashing in 2020, when he hit .324/.407/.533 with 22 home runs, 82 RBIs and 32 doubles in 124 games.

McDaniel has said he believes Kang is a potential first-round MLB draft talent.

Mel Rojas Jr., outfielder, KT Wiz

The 30-year-old Rojas — whose father pitched in the majors for 10 years — never reached The Show after the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him in the third round in 2010. Instead, he has spent the past four seasons of his career with the Wiz, becoming one of the KBO’s premier sluggers. In 2020, the outfielder nearly won the Triple Crown, hitting .349 — good for third in the KBO — while leading the league with 47 home runs and 135 RBIs.

After the playoffs, Rojas will likely need to decide whether he wants to pursue a job in MLB or accept a raise from the Wiz.

“I hear some mixed reviews and lukewarm interest, despite his gaudy numbers. He’s going to get probably a huge raise, close to $2 million guaranteed, from KT Wiz,” said Daniel Kim. “I don’t foresee a major league organization guaranteeing him that. [But] he wants to go to the majors — he’s never played at the major league level.”



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Jon Lester hopes to remain with Chicago Cubs after team declines $25 million option

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CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs declined the $25 million team option on pitcher Jon Lester on Friday, but sources say they are likely to announce picking up the $16.5 million option on first baseman Anthony Rizzo before a Sunday deadline.

Lester, 36, was at the end of a six-year, $155 million contract with the Cubs and still could return on a lesser deal. He’s owed a $10 million buyout.

“I know there is some doubt as far as the money that’s out there but I would like to think we can definitely get this thing done,” Lester said on ESPN 1000 on Friday. “I think it’s going to be a long offseason for everybody.”

Lester is a three-time World Series winner and was considered a culture-changing addition to the Cubs when he signed with them before the 2015 season. He struggled in the middle of the 2020 campaign but pitched well down the stretch after fixing his mechanics. He has won 193 career games and has previously stated he would like to win No. 200 as a Cub. Lester was 3-3 with a 5.16 ERA in 2020.

Rizzo, 31, will be among players around the league who will have his team option picked up for 2021. The Cubs did the same with him before last season, picking up an option for the same price, $16.5 million. He has been a stalwart at first base and a leader in the clubhouse during the Cubs’ competitive years over the past half-decade.

Rizzo struggled some during the shortened 2020 season, hitting .222 with 11 home runs, but over the course of his career he has been a great value for the team after signing a seven-year, $41 million extension in 2013.

The Cubs will also decline an option on infielder Daniel Descalso. He’ll be owed $1 million.

Lester was asked when he was hoping to know if he’ll be back with the Cubs on a smaller deal.

“Things don’t happen until after Thanksgiving for a lot of guys,” he said. “Hopefully sooner rather than later.”

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