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Bill Plaschke: Ippei Mizuhara's surrender inspires Shohei Ohtani to soar for Dodgers

Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Baseball

LOS ANGELES — Ippei Mizuhara entered a courtroom in shackles.

Shohei Ohtani flew around Chavez Ravine on wings.

On the most sobering, sensational of Fridays, one man's arrest became another man's freedom, a simple ballgame serving as a striking example of brilliance unburdened.

Just down the street from Dodger Stadium, Ohtani's longtime interpreter and close colleague Mizuhara surrendered to authorities on charges of stealing more than $16 million from Ohtani to supply his gambling addiction.

Hours later, Ohtani did not give an inch to the San Diego Padres, clobbering a first-inning home run and adding two scorching doubles in an eventual 8-7, 11-inning defeat.

The two events felt related. The divergence of the two paths now feels real. Now that Mizuhara is facing 30 years in prison, Ohtani can now strictly concentrate on facing pitchers.

You think the Dodgers superstar feels relieved at this first sign of closure? You think he hasn't been affected by all the chatter that perhaps he was a knowing participant in the gambling scandal? You think he's thrilled the cynicism has been silenced?

The calmest of stars was certainly feeling something, because he attacked Friday as if unleashed.

"Shohei, he's doing it, man," said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. "He's playing great baseball, he's got that look in his eye like he wants to be at the plate and he's just taking really good swings, hitting everything hard. Yeah, I just marvel at what he's done … just the talent that's something pretty remarkable."

And if one is to believe that look in his eye, Friday is just the beginning.

Before the game, through a statement, Mizuhara apologized to Ohtani, his lawyer Michael G. Freedman saying, "He wishes to apologize to Mr. Ohtani, the Dodgers, Major League Baseball and his family."

Also before the game, Ohtani said he was ready to move forward, telling The Los Angeles Times' Jack Harris in Japanese, "I'm very grateful for the Department of Justice's investigation. For me personally, this marks a break from this, and I'd like to focus on baseball."

Then the game began, and that focus became clear. Mizuhara was out of the picture, and Ohtani was ready to roll.

"I just feel for Shohei, that he's had to have this burden," Roberts said. "But … he's handled it really well and hasn't let it affect his performance."

The second pitch he saw from Padres starter Michael King, Ohtani drove a fastball 403 feet into left-center field for his fourth dinger and 175th major league homer, tying Hideki Matsui for the most major league home runs by a Japanese-born player.

Fun fact: The record for Dodgers home runs by a Japanese-born player is held by Dave Roberts, a whopping seven.

"I've still got a couple more days," Roberts said.

Another fun fact: This latest home run was caught by a fan who smartly decided to keep the ball.

Ohtani was just getting started. In the second inning he hit a screeching drive to center field that required a diving catch by Jackson Merrill. In the fifth inning he blooped a double down the left-field line. Two innings later he scorched a double into the right-field corner.

 

The Dodgers hit three more homers, but it was not enough to overcome a blown four-run lead by six Dodgers relievers after starter Yoshinobu Yamamoto could last only five innings because he threw 91 pitches.

"Overall we put up a good fight," Ohtani said .

He has been putting up a good fight, with an eight-game hitting streak in which he's batting .457 with four homers, seven doubles and six RBIs.

With each Ohtani plate appearance, the appreciative crowd roars even louder. He's quickly become the local favorite, fans surely appreciating his constant sense of calm and refusal to engage in controversy.

After Friday's game he immediately stepped out of the clubhouse and stood on an interview stage and pleasantly answered several questions. But he pointedly would not address any queries involving Mizuhara. As he showed on the field, he's moved on.

"He's handled it with flying colors," Roberts said. "He's done a great job of just focusing on playing baseball, and not letting it be a distraction for him. And our guys, as well, have handled it really well, as far as that noise and not letting it affect play."

This could be just the player to keep the Dodgers from collapsing for a third straight October. If he can handle an alleged massive betrayal from an alleged close friend, he can surely handle the playoff heat.

"I think he has a very good — I don't want to say poker face — but he's very stoic," said Roberts. "You just don't know his emotions. He just comes in every day the same. You never know if things are good or things are bad, stuff on his mind. He's just a pro. He just wants to play baseball."

Ohtani's coolness is contagious, as Friday illustrated two other examples of resilience winning the fight with uncertainty.

Seemingly moments before the start of the season, Mookie Betts was moved to shortstop, a position he's played for 16 games in the major leagues.

It was stunning. It was unsettling. The Dodgers were criticized. He was questioned. The Dodgers didn't budge. He didn't stop working.

It shows. He has been one of baseball's best players, and Friday he hit a three-run homer in the second inning and then pulled off two fielding gems. He nabbed a Jake Cronenworth grounder, sprinted to second and turned a nifty double play to end the Padres' third. In the Padres seventh he dived into the third-base line stands to make a diving catch of a Luis Campusano foul ball.

The former Boston Red Sox star would feel awkward hearing this, but for a moment he actually looked like Derek Jeter.

Then there was Max Muncy, who is still fighting the perception he can't play third base. He struggled coming out of spring training. He made two errors and another miscue in the season's second game.

Yet he kept hacking, kept honing, hit an eventual game-winning home run against St. Louis, and then Friday night blasted his third homer while making two great late-inning stops.

"I think we're good about focusing on the controllables," Roberts said. "I know it's trite. I know it sounds simple. It's not. But our job is to be professionals and play baseball. Represent this organization the best we can each day. So everyone has things going on in their lives. But you have got to be able to focus on our job. And with what we have here with the Dodgers, our guys do a heck of a job."

Yes, they do, as Shohei Ohtani showed on a day when his interpreter surrendered, and he was set free.


©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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