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Real or not? Early exit, blister bring Shohei Ohtani back to earth

Maybe we needed to slow down. Shohei Ohtani was making the game look a little too easy, and it most certainly is not easy.

In his third major league start, Ohtani scuffled with his fastball, couldn’t throw strikes with his off-speed stuff and then left after two innings and 66 pitches because of a blister. Obviously, depending on when the blister developed, it might have affected his performance. Keep in mind that Ohtani is adapting to a different baseball -- the major league ball is slicker and smoother, while the Japanese ball has higher seams. That said, it was a rough outing and a reminder that while we saw peak Ohtani on April 8 against the A’s, he’s still a 23-year-old who might not be quite a finished product on the mound.

Some numbers from Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Info:

  • Ohtani threw just 10 of his 29 off-speed pitches for strikes (34 percent), down from 68 percent in his first two starts.

  • Sixty-two percent of those off-speed pitches were labeled “noncompetitive,” which means they were at least 18 inches from the center of the strike zone. That’s a polite way of saying he was all over the place.

  • Ohtani induced just three misses out of 27 swings (11 percent), down from a 47 percent swing-and-miss rate in his first two starts (which led MLB starters).

Even if the blister was to blame, it’s worth pointing out that Mookie Betts led off the game with a home run, crushing a 3-2 fastball out to left-center. That was a pitch low and in, the same pitch batters had done a lot of damage on in spring training. Ohtani obviously throws hard, but the fastball seems pretty straight, and that seems to be the one location that right-handed batters will hit him. Or maybe Mookie was just locked in: He added two more home runs on the night.

Of course, the Red Sox also present a different challenge than the Athletics, Ohtani’s opponent in his first two starts. The A’s are more of a three-true-outcomes kind of team -- walks, strikeouts and home runs -- the kind of lineup you can exploit when things are working. The Red Sox will battle more to put the ball in play and maybe do a better job of controlling the strike zone if you’re not throwing strikes. Indeed, Ohtani’s 66 pitches were the second-highest in the first two innings of a game this season, with the highest count also coming against the Red Sox.

One takeaway from this game is more of a long-term outlook for the Angels and how Mike Scioscia ultimately handles his six-man rotation, a group that is already down JC Ramirez for the season and has lost Matt Shoemaker to a current DL stint. Assuming the blister isn’t an issue, wouldn’t it be tempting to bring Ohtani back sooner than next Monday or Tuesday, given that he threw just 66 pitches? Same thing goes for Garrett Richards if he has a low-pitch game. That’s aside from the temptation to start using the Angels' best pitchers more often if the American League West turns into a tight two-team race.

Ohtani’s poor outing came as we released our annual ranking of MLB’s top players. I was one of the voters in the project, and it was almost impossible to rank Ohtani because he had made just two starts and was off to a hot start at the plate. He ended up No. 52 on the list, though I had him higher. This start was a reminder that the baseball season is a long journey of highs and lows. For Ohtani, I still believe there will be a lot more highs than games such as this one.

P.S. With three three-homer games in his Red Sox career, Betts has tied Ted Williams for most three-homer games in Red Sox history. The Red Sox are also 14-2.

Homecoming king: The Twins and Indians are playing a two-game series in Puerto Rico, the first regular-season games played there since the Marlins and Mets played a series in 2010 and just seven months after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria.

The pregame festivities included Bernie Williams playing both national anthems on his guitar and Carlos Beltran, wearing his Astros World Series ring, throwing out the first pitch. Those moments took a back seat to what will be one of the best moments of the season: Francisco Lindor returned home and broke a 0-0 tie in the fifth inning with a dramatic and emotional home run:

That’s Lindor’s mother receiving hugs in the stands, and ESPN’s Marly Rivera caught up with her:

“It’s a dream,” Lindor said after the game. “It was special, something I’ll never take for granted, something I’ll never forget.” The Indians tacked on three more home runs in the 6-1 victory, with Corey Kluber allowing one run in 6⅔ innings to lower his ERA to 1.52.

These games are important to Puerto Rico, but any Twins-Indians games are important because these head-to-head matchups will go a long way to determining the AL Central, especially given that both teams are likely to beat up on the hapless White Sox, Tigers and Royals all season. The Indians dominated the series last year, winning 12 of 19 and outscoring the Twins 93 to 56 -- and that was with Kluber making just one start against the Twins. Don’t miss Wednesday’s game on ESPN, especially with Puerto Rico native Jose Berrios starting for Minnesota.

Patrick Corbin is pitching like an ace: The Diamondbacks lefty was brilliant in tossing his first complete-game shutout to outduel Johnny Cueto in a 1-0 victory. The only hit was Brandon Belt’s infield single with two outs in the eighth inning. The Diamondbacks had a shift on, and Belt’s check-swing dribbler went to where a third baseman normally would be playing, but shortstop Nick Ahmed had too far to range, and Belt beat the throw to first. No, don’t blame the Diamondbacks for having the shift on there: It was still a 0-0 game, and you’re trying to keep Belt off base; it was just a bad break for Corbin.

Anyway, Corbin is 3-0 in four starts with a 1.65 ERA, and there’s nothing fluky in the numbers, as he has 37 strikeouts and five walks in 27⅓ innings. He has had hot stretches before, including a 0.50 ERA over a five-start period last August and September, but there are reasons to buy into this start as something real. He’s throwing his slider more often; he’s getting more swing-and-misses with it; his overall strikeout rate is high (even higher than in that five-start stretch last season). His overall swing-and-miss rate has climbed from 25.7 percent last season to 41.4 percent, thanks largely to a 16 percent increase in the miss rate on the slider. It seems that he has changed the shape of it, as the zone rate has dropped from 41.3 percent to 31 percent. In other words, batters are missing it more because it’s diving out of the zone. That has been one of the best pitches in the majors in 2018, and it's a reason Corbin has been one of the top starters so far.

Best throwback jersey night of the season: The A’s are celebrating their 50th anniversary in Oakland, and Tuesday’s game against the White Sox featured 1968 throwbacks:

This was also the “free ticket” night for the A’s, and they drew 46,000 fans -- though the stadium wasn’t quite full. Still, it was loud and raucous, 1968 songs played from the sound system, and best of all, the A’s scored five runs in the first and rolled to a 10-2 victory as Trevor Cahill tossed seven scoreless innings. Star alert: Matt Chapman drew three walks and has 10 walks and 13 strikeouts. His plate discipline was his big weakness as a rookie, and so far, so good.