ANAHEIM, Calif. — The list of pitchers who have recorded double-digit strikeouts and allowed no more than one run through four consecutive starts is as short as it is distinguished. Since the earned run became an official stat in 1913, there have been only 10 of them: Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Ron Guidry, Hideo Nomo, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, and now, after recording 12 strikeouts and twirling six innings of one-run ball in the Los Angeles Angels’ 7-1 victory over the Houston Astros, Shohei Ohtani.
Four of the aforementioned pitchers (Koufax, Ryan, Martinez, Johnson) are in the Hall of Fame. Another (Scherzer) will be eventually. Four of the others (Guidry, Nomo, Sale, Kluber) were among the most accomplished pitchers of their respective eras. The most recent addition (Ohtani) might be more singularly talented than all of them.
Wednesday’s game, in which he combined a masterful pitching performance with a dominant offensive night, was only the latest example. Over the past 34 days, Ohtani — voted as the American League’s starting designated hitter in the upcoming All-Star Game but also selected as a pitcher — has a 0.45 ERA with 58 strikeouts in 39⅔ innings on the mound and is slashing .291/.395/.602 with eight home runs in 29 games in the batter’s box. All told, he has compiled an AL-leading 4.4 FanGraphs wins above replacement, putting him on track for a second consecutive MVP Award despite the Angels’ continual struggles.
“There’s Major League Baseball players that have been around for a long, long time that are in awe of what he’s doing,” Angels catcher Max Stassi said. “I am, too. It’s amazing, it’s great for the game. It’ll never be done, ever again, at this level.”
Ohtani entered his most recent start having gone 28⅔ consecutive innings without allowing an earned run, then struck out four of the first seven batters he faced. He lined a two-out triple into the right-field corner to score two runs in the bottom of the second, then returned to the mound in the top of the third and retired the side, at one point striking out Jose Altuve with a 100.6 mph fastball.
The Astros, 21-6 since June 12, finally scored in the fourth, when Kyle Tucker walked, then stole second base and scored on a dribbler to right field off the bat of Yuli Gurriel. The Astros never scored again. Ohtani retired eight of the next 10 batters he faced, seven of them on strikeouts. The Astros entered with the third-lowest strikeout rate in the sport, but Ohtani induced whiffs on half of the swings that were taken against him — the vast majority of which came on his slider. He also reached base three times.
“It’s something special, when a guy comes out and competes on both sides of the ball and does what he does,” Angels outfielder Jo Adell said. “That definitely fires us up.”
The Angels (39-50) have won each of Ohtani’s past three starts but have lost 10 consecutive games started by somebody else. Since the start of June, they are 6-1 when Ohtani starts and 6-26 when anybody else does.
Ohtani emerged as a two-way threat last season, for a short-handed Angels team that couldn’t recover from the prolonged absences of Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon. Now, with the Angels on the verge of missing the postseason for the 12th time in the past 13 years, Ohtani seems to have taken his two-way prowess to another level, largely because of his noticeable improvements as a pitcher.
He can still reach triple digits with his fastball — Ohtani hit 100 mph on his on his 104th pitch on Wednesday — but he’s also commanding four other pitches, including a cutter, a splitter, a curveball and, most notably, a slider. Ohtani throws three different version of that slider, Stassi said, manipulating the depth and the velocity based on the hitter and the situation. Ohtani has thrown a slider 43% of the time over his past four starts, and opposing hitters have only a .264 OPS against it, going 4-for-33 with 19 strikeouts.
Ohtani has recorded double-digit strikeouts in all of those outings.
Only one other Angels pitcher accumulated 10-plus strikeouts in four straight starts: Ryan.
“I think he’s just in full control,” Stassi said. “It’s pretty obvious out there.”