By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) – Shohei Ohtani had his least productive night on the mound since the Japanese two-way star’s high-profile move to Major League Baseball, but the heavy loss his Los Angeles Angels absorbed on Tuesday is unlikely to dampen support at home or across Asia.
Following the 23-year-old’s stellar start to the season with both bat and ball in a rookie campaign that has already seen him compared to Hall of Famer Babe Ruth, backing for Ohtani in his homeland has increased with each passing week.
However, after winning his first two starts, Ohtani’s Midas touch deserted him on Tuesday when he was withdrawn after just two hand blister-hampered innings, throwing 34 strikes in 66 pitches as the Boston Red Sox romped to a 10-1 victory.
Despite this performance, Major League Baseball believe they have found the next Asian star to help spread the popularity of their brand across the continent.
“(Television) Ratings right now are triple what they were last year across all of our games, so clearly this story is resonating with fans throughout Japan and really throughout Asia,” MLB Vice President for Asia Jim Small told Reuters.
Small watched the game alongside 30-40 fans at a baseball-themed bar located in the shadow of the iconic Tokyo Dome stadium, where the group gathered hoping to see a player who has also hit three home runs continue his dream start.
“We have seen increases in social media, ratings in China, in Chinese Taipei and in Korea,” Small added. “I think Asia has rallied behind Shohei Ohtani.”
There was plenty of Angels and Ohtani-related gear available at a shop adjacent to the bar, where sales staff stressed how hard it had been to ensure the shelves were stocked enough to keep up with demand.
Small added that official merchandise sales for the first month of the MLB season would not be available for a couple of weeks.
The unique aspect of Ohtani compared to other Japanese exports is his ability to both pitch and bat to a high standard, meaning he has the potential to become a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
“Clearly the excitement that exists in Japan right now for Shohei is really amazing,” Small said.
“It is the first time that someone has really changed the game, pitching and hitting at the same time is very unique, very special so people are excited about that.”
Small added he could not promise that the Angels would be able to play in Tokyo for a couple of years, but that Ohtani may return to his homeland later this year to pitch for an MLB All-Star team in exhibitions against the Japanese national side.
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by John O’Brien)