YOKOHAMA – A blister kept Shohei Otani from pitching in the NPB All-Star Series. So the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ two-way star took part in the festivities as a hitter instead.
Otani put on a show at the plate over the weekend. He participated in home run derbies prior to both games, winning one. During Game 2, he homered and finished with three hits, including a game-tying RBI single in the eighth inning.
“I was chosen (to the All-Star Series) as a pitcher and wanted to show my performance on the mound,” Otani said. “But I ended up being used like this, and wanted to just do my job.
Otani’s status for the series was in doubt on July 10, when his left his start against the Chiba Lotte Marines in the seventh inning because of a blister on the middle finger of his right hand. He ended up coming to the series, and was announced as a pitcher, but was limited to hitting.
That didn’t stop the 22-year-old from putting on a show.
“Otani has been the most impressive player here so far,” said Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks shortstop Kenta Imamiya prior to Game 2. “I mean, he was able to win the home run derby. He’s really just got a complete and full swing.”
While MLB fans didn’t get to see the San Francisco Giants’ Madison Bumgarner participate in a home run derby, NPB fans not only saw an ace pitcher hit during a derby, but actually win one.
In the home run derby (which gave the players seven outs to work with) before Game 1, Otani hit six homers in the first round to edge Tokyo Yakult Swallows star Tetsuto Yamada, the current NPB leader with 29, who hit five. Otani hit three in the final to see off the Hawks’ Yuki Yanagita.
He lined out in his only at-bat during Game 1.
In Yokohama before Game 2, Otani only needed one homer to reach the final, again beating Yamada. He ran out of gas and didn’t hit any in the final round, falling to the Seibu Lions’ Ernesto Mejia.
“It was fun to participate in the home run derby, but I lost,” Otani said.
Otani gave the people what they wanted in the fifth inning of the second All-Star game, with the left-handed-hitting batter going deep to left-center off BayStars pitcher Shoichi Ino to lead off the frame.
“He’s a very special player,” said Mejia, who leads the Pacific League with 27 home runs. “He has so much talent. It’s very impressive to watch, especially knowing that he’s a pitcher. He’s a really good batter with great power.”
Otani is having a great year with the bat. He has a .331 average with 10 home runs, which matches his career high, and 27 RBIs in 130 at-bats. He has nine doubles, has drawn 27 walks (and struck out 35 times) and has a 1.075 on-base plus slugging percentage. He was so effective as a hitter, that for several games, the team let him hit for himself while pitching instead of using a designated hitter.
“At his age, to hit the ball the way he’s hitting it so far, that’s impressive,” said Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien. “You don’t get any kids at that age who can handle the bat and hit the ball like he’s hitting it.”
It’s a far cry from his 2015 campaign at the plate. Otani hit just .202 with five home runs and 17 RBIs in 109 at-bats last season.
“He’s hitting more this year,” said Fighters infielder Brandon Laird. “We’re using him three, four times a week. For him to still not hit every day, and what he does and the numbers he has, it’s unbelievable.
Otani, of course, is also an accomplished pitcher. He’s made 16 starts and is 8-4 with a 2.04 ERA. He leads Japan with 140 strikeouts and has walked 39.
“It’s obviously a rare thing for a guy to not only be able to do it pretty well, but just get the opportunity to go both ways. He’s definitely doing a tough thing and doing it really well,” said the Hiroshima Carp’s Brad Eldred. “He’s obviously a very good pitcher, has really good stuff.
“To also be able to get to hit and have the opportunity to do that and be successful at it, considering the different things he has to do to be ready to pitch, I think it’s a big thing for him, for their team and the organization. It’s pretty impressive to see him be able to succeed at both things.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report