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Angels Shuhei Ohtani upsets the Yankees as free agency approaches

Angels Shuhei Ohtani upsets the Yankees as free agency approaches

NEW YORK – Shuhei Ohtani’s scene began long before the match began. The two-way Angels star surprised those around his team when he took batting practice outdoors, eschewing the usual cage routine. When the team’s stores opened inside Yankee Stadium, the Yankees were, in a rare move, selling three T-shirts featuring an opposing player—Ohtani. On one of these shirts, Yankees star Aaron Judge featured the opposite side of the Otani with a message above it: “Home Run Battle in the Bronx.”

It was an unusual start to the series, which was appropriate, considering it was a unique pitch appearance for Otani. The 28-year-old will be a free agent at the end of the season. Almost every team in Major League Baseball would line up, hoping to have the chance to write him a check that some expect would top $400 million, and thought they’d bring him back again in his international charisma off the field and incredible ability to hit and field it. The Yankees would be one of those teams interested, though it’s unclear how far owner Hal Steinbrenner would be willing to go into his pockets.

Ohtani gave Yankees fans no less reason to dream as he showed just how influential he was in a 5-2 victory over their team on Tuesday night. The Japanese native squashed a two-run shot in the first inning off struggling starting pitcher Clark Schmidt. In the fifth, he reached catcher’s tackle before stealing second base and moving to third base on a throw by catcher Kyle Higashioka that vaulted to center field. Otani scored on the sacrifice fly. He finished 1-for-3 with a walk.

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“It’s a beautiful field,” Otani said through an interpreter. “Excited fans. Always look forward to playing here. It’s really fun to play here.”

Of course, Ohtani wasn’t interested in showing the Yankees love the last time he made a decision about his future. Prior to signing with the Angels in December 2017, Ohtani had not had a personal meeting with the Yankees. Instead, he met five West Coast teams (Angels, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners and Padres), Cubs and Guards. At the time, the Yankees were under the impression Ohtani did not want to play on the East Coast or in a major market.

But this time? Now, Ohtani is a bona fide unicorn. This season, he is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in four starts and is batting . 300 with four home runs and a 0.915 OPS in 60 at-bats. He won the American League Rookie of the Year Award, the AL MVP Award, and finished second in the MVP race last year to Judge, who racked up an AL single-season record 62.

Of course, Ohtani has been silent about his upcoming free agency, but he also hasn’t given any indication that he might think differently this time around. He has spent the past six seasons playing for the Small Market Angels. Maybe he’s being pulled from the West Coast or away to a small market for the chance to play with a winner.

But Ohtani may have changed up his routine on Tuesday and took batting practice outdoors to see what it would be like to do on a daily basis in the Bronx. If that was the case – no matter how slim the chance – he underestimated the move.

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“I just wanted to see my spherical plane,” he said. “It’s impossible to do that indoors. I think I’ll be hitting outside decently more often here now.”

Judge completed his free agency sweepstakes with a $360 million payout in December. He’s curious to see Otani’s next move.

“He’s a great all-around athlete,” said Judge. “It will be exciting to watch. I’m excited to see where he goes. I hope he likes…”

Then the judge paused for a moment.

“I’m excited to see where it goes,” said the judge.

Will the Yankees superstar try to recruit Ohtani?

“Not yet,” said the judge.

Yankees fans probably have no reason to believe their team will have a better shot at Ohtani’s touchdown this time than they did last time, but they’ll be watching closely anyway.

They probably won’t get a chance to tell him.

“I actually didn’t step outside the hotel in New York,” Ohtani said.

Donaldson’s health remains in question

Third baseman Josh Donaldson was hoping to play just one rehab game with Double-A Somerset and then come back off the injured list on Wednesday. But manager Aaron Boone said Donaldson, who went 1-for-3, continued to feel “tight” in his strained right hamstring. Donaldson was scheduled to meet with the Yankees coaches Tuesday. He has been out since April 6th. The longer Donaldson is on the ice, the more likely it is that long-running Oswald Peraza will stay with the big-league side.

Schmidt struggles again

Schmidt lasted 3 and 2/3 innings Tuesday, giving up four runs. In four starts, Schmidt has an 8.79 ERA and has never lasted more than four innings. Boone said Schmidt’s command was the problem. “Just sprinkle it in a little bit,” Boone said. Again, kind of a mixed bag. But Boone knows with Carlos Rodon (forearm and back) and Luis Severino (lat) about a month away from returning, the Yankees will have to continue to lean on Schmidt in the rotation. “He’s one of our starters right now,” Boone said. “I can’t raise or lower leverage at the start of the game. We’re a little surprised in the spin now. He’s got to get out there and find some way and get to the next level now.”

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(Photo: Brad Penner/USA Today)