CHICAGO — Kenta Maeda can just picture how the headlines might read, both in the United States and back home in Japan. He envisions his matchup with Shohei Ohtani, if it doesn’t go his way, becoming big news.
“If (I give) up a hit to Shohei, in the U.S., it’ll be just like, ‘Hey, Shohei Ohtani, it’s just another hit.’ But in Japan, it’s going to be, ‘Kenta Maeda gave up a hit to Shohei Ohtani.’ I’m not a big fan of that being talked about over there in such a way,” Maeda said with a laugh.
He knows that to be true because he has given up a hit — two, actually, including a home run — to Ohtani in the past, while he was with the Dodgers. He would prefer not to repeat the experience again on Thursday.
The greatest Sho in baseball is coming to Target Field this weekend when two-way star Shohei Ohtani and the Los Angeles Angels arrive to town for a four-game series with the Twins beginning at 7:10 p.m. Thursday. With Ohtani will come a crush of Japanese media in the press box and perhaps a few more fans in the stands.
While the Angels have not announced their starting pitcher for Sunday, Ohtani would be in line if they keep him on regular rest. If they push him back, Twins fans will still have opportunity to watch him hit. And on Thursday, that would be against Maeda, his fellow countryman.
“He’s a spectacle,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of Ohtani. “He brings a dimension and does things on a baseball field that you kind of only dream about. It’s almost fictional.”
Ohtani’s season has been nothing short of remarkable. He was the main attraction during last week’s all-star festivities in Denver, participating in the Home Run Derby on Monday before starting Tuesday’s game on the mound while also serving as the American League’s starting designated hitter. For his scoreless one inning of pitching, he was credited with the win.
“I’m glad he’s kind of filling up those shoes, the expectations,” said former Angels teammate Andrelton Simmons, now shortstop for the Twins. “I’m happy for him.”
The talent, Simmons said, was evident upon his arrival in Anaheim. But because of past injuries, it really wasn’t until this year that Ohtani was able to ascend to a rare level of baseball superstardom.
And it’s no coincidence.
“He’s very professional, very disciplined, very baseball student of the game,” Simmons said. “He’s so dedicated to baseball. It’s pretty impressive, the discipline.”
Ohtani enters the series with a league-leading 34 home runs. His .679 slugging percentage also leads the league, and his 1.040 OPS is just shy of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s for first in the majors. And for good measure, Ohtani can run, too, having swiped 12 bags this year.
Ohtani was American League’s Rookie of the Year in 2018, but did not pitch in 2019, requiring Tommy John surgery. He only pitched in two games last season, dealing with a flexor strain that kept him off the mound.
But in 14 starts this season, he has posted a 3.21 earned-run average, earning himself a selection to the all-star game as both a pitcher and a hitter. In his last start, he threw six dazzling scoreless innings, giving up just three hits and striking out eight.
“There’s this level of freakish ability that very few players have and he’s kind of prominent on that totem pole of incredible, incredible athletes that we’re going to witness,” Baldelli said. “We should all kind of marvel and take a moment to acknowledge what he’s doing. It’s beyond special.”
But while they’re marveling at his ability, the Twins also know they have to find a way to get him out. That wasn’t quite so easy in 2019, when Ohtani made his first — and only visit so far — to Target Field.
On that trip, he went 6 for 15 against Twins pitchers.
“As a fellow Japanese countryman, I’m really happy to see his success at a very high level this season and whenever I face him, he’s a tough out to get, so I’ll make sure to do my homework and do the best I can to fight against him,” said Maeda, who has been a teammate on the Japanese national team with Ohtani in the past.
And in between trying to figure out how to approach Ohtani, there might be some gawking along the way in the home dugout.
“Before and after the games, I’ll be taking it in a little bit too because the guy is in some ways a once-in-a-lifetime player,” Baldelli said. “We don’t always get to see guys like that up close.”