Hernández: For a 'relieved' Shohei Ohtani, first home run carries weight

?url=https%3A%2F%2Fcalifornia times brightspot.s3.amazonaws.com%2F18%2F33%2F45b4e7ab4a72911bcac61a7445cb%2F1424735 sp dodgers giants 20 ajs

Shohei Ohtani sniffled. He coughed into his shoulder.

“These last few days,” he said in Japanese, “it was pretty …”

He stopped himself.

“It’s gotten better,” he said.

Even though Ohtani hadn’t completely recovered from the cold that made the rounds in the clubhouse in recent days, he managed to crack a smile after a 5-4 victory over the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium.

Nine games into his first season with the Dodgers, Ohtani finally homered.

He was more relieved than he was overjoyed, which was evident by how he looked as he rounded the bases after launching a seventh-inning fastball by Taylor Rodgers halfway up the right-field pavilion.

He didn’t grin.

He didn’t scream.

He didn’t punch the air or point to the sky.

Only when outfielder Teoscar Hernández showered him with sunflower seeds in front of the dugout did Ohtani break the emotionless facade.

“Inside, I felt as if I hadn’t hit one in a pretty long time,” he said. “Honestly, I’m relieved I was able to hit one.”

The 430-foot solo blast off left-hander Taylor Rogers came on his 41st plate appearance of the season. Never in the six years with the Angels did he wait as long for his first home run.

“My feeling of, ‘I want to hit one quickly, I want to hit one quickly,’ was moving me further and further away from taking good at-bats,” Ohtani said.

Ohtani said he didn’t want to blame his slow start with the Dodgers on his mental state — he entered the series finale against the Giants with a .242 average — but the reality was that he was dealing with an unusual amount of distractions.

The expectations that accompanied his 10-year, $700-million contract. The revelation that his name surfaced in a federal investigation into an alleged illegal bookmaker. The public statement he made in which he denied his involvement in sports betting and claimed that interpreter Ippei Mizuhara made unauthorized payments from his bank account.

“You just never know about a person until they go through some adversity, whether on the field [or] in this case, off the field,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I’ve learned that he’s unflappable. He really is. I know that the first nine games, the production that we all expect and know is going to happen [wasn’t there]. But as far as his demeanor and the way he comes in every day, he does a good job separating from the other stuff.”

Roberts said he didn’t observe any signs that Ohtani was affected by the gambling scandal, which resulted in Mizuhara’s firing.

“He’s either just kind of continuing to separate it, or he’s got a good poker face,” Roberts said. “I’m sure which one it is.”

Which one does Roberts think it is?

“Like most things, probably somewhere in between,” Roberts replied.

Ohtani, who also reached base on an infield single and scored from first base on a double by Will Smith in the third inning, credited Roberts for his breakthrough.

“He told me, ‘Just continue to be yourself,’” Ohtani said. “That made me feel relaxed.”

The adjustments to his swing weren’t as sudden. Ohtani identified his timing and points of contact as the reasons for why he wasn’t hitting but was methodical in how he addressed the problems.

“Forcefully making changes, in the long-term, takes me away from how I hit,” he said. “I think it’s important to be patient and make adjustments little by little.”

Ohtani said he didn’t feel any extra pressure because Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman were hitting and he wasn’t.

“There was none of that,” he said. “If anything, I felt like they were helping me out.”

The Dodgers have scored five or more runs in each of their first nine games of the season, which they’ve never done in their history. Ohtani said he was able to stay within himself because Betts and Freeman were producing, pointing out, “There are certain situations you can contribute without getting a hit.”

That was the case in the series opener against the Giants when Ohtani drove in Betts with a groundout.

Nonetheless, homering was important to Ohtani, who sounded unusually sentimental when talking about meeting the fan who caught the ball. Ohtani received the home run ball in exchange for two hats, a bat and a ball.

“For me, it’s a very special ball so I’m thankful,” he said.

The two weeks leading up to the home run were certainly eventful — and not in a pleasant way.

Presumably, Ohtani now will go back to doing what he’s always done. He’ll hit hundreds more home runs over the remainder of his 10-year contract. Many of them will be more important. Many of them will be more dramatic. Few of them will be as memorable.

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