‘We gotta get there’: Angels seek October prize as time ticks on Ohtani

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After all, the greatest two-way player in baseball history won’t solidify his 2024 destination for months. And Ohtani and the Angels have never reached the dance floor together, anyway.

Yet the snake-bitten and at times inept franchise and the sport’s most compelling global superstar – oh, and Mike Trout, too – find themselves in a familiar spot under unfamiliar circumstances: Trying to lift Ohtani and Trout to the playoffs, only this time under a deadline.

Ohtani’s impending free agency isn’t exactly adding urgency to the Angels’ season. They are professionals, after all, who respect the grind of a season and attack it with vigor on the daily. Still, it’s hard to ignore that a winning season (which hasn’t happened in Anaheim since 2014) and October glory (the Angels’ last playoff win was 2009) might somehow help the Angels retain Ohtani beyond November.

Even if reality suggests otherwise.

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“We never talk about it, but everyone wants to be on a winning team,” Angels closer Carlos Estévez tells USA TODAY Sports. “Hopefully, it might attract him here and he gets to stay and it’s amazing.

“But at the same time, it is what it is. He’s going to do what’s best for him and his family.”

That decision will surely involve a contract nearing or north of $500 million. While Ohtani has never ruled out a return to Anaheim, he hasn’t suppressed his desire to play for a winner.

And should the Japanese icon prefer extending his stay on the West Coast, prosperous suitors await like so many Great White Sharks in the Pacific: The Dodgers, Giants and Padres all boast playoff track records, an ability or willingness to spend big and, in L.A.’s case, a concerted effort to save a few bucks for the Winter of Ohtani.

So where does that leave the Angels for one final, potentially cruel summer?

“We’re trying,” says Estévez, who is signed through next year. “If we get there, we get deep in the playoffs, hopefully, and he comes back, that would be amazing to play another year with him.”

First, to get there.

Fifteen wins a month

After they were swept out of the AL Division Series by Kansas City in Trout’s first MVP season of 2014, the Angels were the club of near-misses, winning 85 games in 2015 and 80 in both 2017 and ’18, Ohtani’s rookie year. They’ve merely been bad and unstable ever since, playing .454 ball even as Ohtani won the 2021 AL MVP and could have (maybe should have?) won it last year.

If the middling performance made Anaheim a harder future sell for Ohtani, he’s currently playing for his fourth manager in five years, and for an owner who put the franchise on the market, only to pull it off before this season began.

That leaves Phil Nevin – who took over for the fired Joe Maddon in May 2022 – managing on a one-year contract. Yet an offseason focused on depth rather than one of owner Arte Moreno’s ill-fated free agent baubles might serve the team well.

While the Angels are off to a 22-21 start, the track record of several players – Ohtani included – suggests a higher gear is in the offing.

“We haven’t played our best baseball yet,” says outfielder Hunter Renfroe, “There’s still some room to grow there, and that’s a good thing. We always come in here and talk about hey, 15 wins a month. That’s all it takes to get in the playoffs. Anything over that is gaining some ground.

“Once we hit our groove, 15 wins is going to be just the bottom. As long as we keep grinding it out, our pitching staff has been good and they’ll get better. From the hitters’ standpoint, Shohei, Mike, they’re going to get going here in a little bit and it’s going to be fun to watch.”

Renfroe, who has hit a team-high 10 home runs, reached the World Series with the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays and the ’21 ALCS with the Boston Red Sox. Infielder/outfielder Brandon Drury was a key contributor into the 2022 NLCS for the Padres while lefty starter Tyler Anderson had a breakout year for the 106-win Dodgers.

While acquiring so-called “winning players” guarantees little, it does not hurt to have an expanded core that knows 15 wins a month equals roughly 90 for the year – which gets you into the conversation in this era of the expanded postseason.

“Everybody plays hard. We kind of play a hard-type baseball,” says Anderson, who signed a three-year, $39 million deal in November, and figures to improve upon his 5.26 ERA so far. “ Our offense is obviously really resilient, and rakes, and guys put really good at-bats together, 1 through 9.

“And our pitching, we haven’t really hit our stride yet.  I think we have a lot of arms that can be really good. We haven’t really found our rhythm and got it going all at once as a team. Which is a great sign. We’re playing well, but we have the potential to play a lot better.”

 How, then, does this franchise get over the hump?

“You can’t eat an elephant all at once. You gotta eat it one bite at a time,” says Anderson. “The season’s one big elephant. You’re just trying to take it down, you know?”

And then there’s that elephant in the room.

‘We gotta get into the playoffs’

Playing with Ohtani means allowing a moment to be awestruck even if he’s just one of 26 players in a clubhouse.

Well, two players, but you get the idea.

Perhaps Ohtani’s 2021 season – when he hit 46 home runs, drove in 100, stole 26 bases, posted a .965 OPS, struck out 156 and posted a 1.09 WHIP – will remain his apex. Maybe we’ll never see another 2022, when Ohtani the batter posted a 143 adjusted OPS and Ohtani the pitcher’s adjusted ERA was 174 – with 219 strikeouts in 166 innings.

But it’s clear that given good health, something in that range is a new normal for Ohtani, who turns 29 in July. So far, he’s batting .296 with nine homers and a .910 OPS, and has a 3.23 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 53 innings.

And then there are moments like Monday.

Not at his best on the mound, Ohtani gave up three homers to the Baltimore Orioles – he’s now yielded eight after giving up 14 last year – and was headed for a short outing facing a 4-3 deficit after four innings.

“He was struggling a bit pitching and I said, ‘Buddy, just go out there and do your best. We got your back,’” says Renfroe.

“Obviously, he had his own back.”

Ohtani slammed a 456-foot, three-run home run in his next at-bat, finished a double shy of the cycle and reached base five times, making history as only he can.

It also makes his throw nights appointment viewing.

“That’s every day,” says Nevin. “Not just on his pitch day. He seems to do something special to help us win every day.

“But on his pitch day, you’re looking at that going, ‘Wow, what am I going to see that day?’ There’s a certain feeling on days he pitches.”

All this while trailed by a phalanx of Japanese tasked only with documenting his exploits. And as a future destination and a half-billion dollars – give or take – awaits at the end of this rainbow.

“He’s got a whole country behind him and the way he carries the weight of a whole country on his shoulders is amazing,” says Estevez. “You see him smiling, joking, getting after it, hitting a grounder to short and beating it out, and then stepping on the mound and throwing 100 with these crazy pitches.

“It’s like my God, this guy is having the most fun out here – and he’s got the toughest job. It’s really cool to see that.”

Says Anderson: ‘I think he’s just the perfect guy for that. It seems to have no effect on him. He’s really prepared and I think he’s really good at just being in the moment. That old mental adage: Be where your feet are. Be in the moment. Be present. It seems like he can separate the things in his life.’

Now, to extend that ride a few more weeks.

With Justin Verlander out of the division and an early spate of injuries, the Houston Astros – division champs the past five full seasons – are a pedestrian 23-19 out of the gate. The Texas Rangers’ 26-16 start is not insignificant, but potentially not sustainable, while the wild card Seattle Mariners are flirting with .500 alongside the Angels.

There’s no clear path to the postseason, but no immovable object, either. It’s part of the reason why Renfroe, Estevez and others signed on in the first place.

That, along with transcendent stars who could use their turn in the spotlight.

“The two greatest players of the game right now on the same team – we gotta get into the playoffs. We gotta get there,” says Estevez. “I feel like the urgency to win they’re showing, that’s what attracted me.

“Now that I’m here, there’s no question in my head. There’s no maybe. It’s like, we’ve got the stuff to do it.”

And maybe one last chance with perhaps the greatest to ever do it.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY