Alexander: The mystery of Shohei Ohtani continues, but there’s an explanation

  • Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Shohei Ohtani, of Japan, stands at left after walking Houston Astros’ George Springer with the bases loaded during the second inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani, of Japan, walks off the mound after being taken out of the baseball game during the second inning against the Houston Astros on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

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  • Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani, of Japan, gets set to pitch during the second inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Shohei Ohtani, right, of Japan, is taken our of the game by manager Joe Maddon during the second inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols, left, gets a hug from Anthony Rendon after hitting a grand slam during the third inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols, right, gestures as he scores after hitting a grand slam as Houston Astros catcher Dustin Garneau stands at the plate during the third inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols, right, claps as he scores after hitting a grand slam as Houston Astros catcher Dustin Garneau stands at the plate during the third inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols drops his bat as he hits a grand slam during the third inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols, right, gestures as he scores after hitting a grand slam as Houston Astros catcher Dustin Garneau stands at the plate during the third inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols, right, hits a grand slam as Houston Astros catcher Dustin Garneau, second from left, and home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez watch during the third inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols hits a grand slam during the third inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani, right, of Japan, winds up as Houston Astros’ Yuli Gurriel stands at second during the second inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols, center, hits a grand slam as Houston Astros catcher Dustin Garneau, right, and home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez watch during the third inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani, of Japan, gets a pat on the back from a teammate after being taken out of the game during the second inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Houston Astros starting pitcher Josh James throws to the plate during the first inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols, top, heads to third after hitting a grand slam as Houston Astros starting pitcher Josh James stands at the mound during the second inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Shohei Ohtani, of Japan, throws to the plate during the second inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Houston Astros starting pitcher Josh James throws to the plate during the first inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani, right, of Japan, follows through as Houston Astros’ Yuli Gurriel leads off during the second inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols, center, hits a grand slam as Houston Astros catcher Dustin Garneau, right, and home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez watch during the third inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani, center, of Japan, and catcher Max Stassi, left, waves to teammates in the stands prior to a baseball game against the Houston Astros Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani, of Japan, throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols, second from right, is congratulated by teammates Justin Upton, left, Brian Goodwin, center, and David Fletcher, second from left, after hitting a grand slam as Houston Astros catcher Dustin Garneau stands at the plate during the third inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani, of Japan, reacts as he walks in a run during the second inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani, of Japan, stands at left after walking Houston Astros’ George Springer with the bases loaded during the second inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani, right, of Japan, throws to the plate as Houston Astros’ Yuli Gurriel stands at second during the second inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani, of Japan, stands on the mound before being taken out of the game after walking in his second run during the second inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Houston Astros starting pitcher Josh James throws to the plate during the first inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon, left, and Houston Astros third base coach Gary Pettis joke around prior to a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Was it a crisis of confidence, maybe? Was Shohei Ohtani hesitant to really cut loose on the mound, 22 months after Tommy John surgery?

Or was it maybe a dearth of adrenaline? Without the fans and the signs and real, live honest to goodness noise, has Ohtani just found it hard to get pumped up enough to just let it fly in this strangest of all baseball seasons?

Both of the above, maybe, but there’s more – and it’s enough to cause furrowed brows and worried looks among the Angels and their faithful, at the very least.

Ohtani’s second start of 2020, Sunday at Angel Stadium against Houston, was marginally better than his first last week in Oakland, when he couldn’t get out of the first inning. This time he breezed through the first – eight pitches, six strikes and a 1-2-3 inning – but the second was brutal: Five walks, two of which forced in runs, in two-thirds of an inning. And while his velocity started out better Sunday, getting as high as 97, it had tailed off significantly to 89.7 and below by the end of his day. In both cases, half the pitches he threw were balls: 50 in this case including 42, with 23 balls, in the second inning

And then Ohtani reported “discomfort” in his pitching arm, according to an Angels spokesman, and was sent for an MRI.

You panicking yet?

It is worth noting that even with his command struggles in the second inning, Ohtani still could have escaped unscathed Sunday but for plate umpire Alfonso Marquez’ Incredible Floating Strike Zone. A 3-2 pitch to Astros catcher Dustin Garneau in the upper inside quadrant was called ball four by Marquez to force in the first run, and if anyone knows the Japanese translation for “robot umps” I’ve got to think that’s what was going through Ohtani’s mind.

It looked like it was inside the strike zone graphic on the telecast, the online GameDay graphic likewise had it a strike, and after Anthony Rendon was called out on a simliar pitch an inning later the Angels’ telecast helpfully replayed that Ohtani pitch, complete with 3-D illustration.

“He gets that called strike three right there, he gets out of the inning with 30 some pitches and it could have been a different story,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Could have been. I’m just saying.

“Overall, a lot better physical stuff. But the results aren’t good yet.”

The concern was real that Ohtani was hesitant to let it rip, even after having a few extra months to heal from the Tommy John surgery he had in 2018. Maddon said he thought the decrease in velocity was more a combination of fatigue from a long inning and getting out of sync mechanically. The fact that four of the walks came on full counts suggested that Ohtani wasn’t confident enough yet to put hitters away.

This may have been a tipoff. In a Saturday teleconference interview he was asked if he’d overcome the hesitancy to let it all out and answered, through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, “It’s hard to say. I can’t give you a 100 percent answer saying I will be not apprehensive when I’m throwing.”

Whatever the result of that diagnostic test, then, the other challenge ultimately will be to get Ohtani through the mental aspect of this.

“There’s a lot of conversations involved,” Maddon said, after the game but before Ohtani’s trip to the MRI chamber was disclosed. “In order to really understand how you could help him, you got to do a good job of listening.  You present the opportunity or the forum for the player to speak openly and then you listen.

“I’m a mental skills guy. I believe in it. It’s about creating and maintaining a routine. It’s not complicated, but when things start going quickly we get away from it. We all do. So it’s a conversation, an open conversation. It’s a lot of listening. And then it’s building the process, building the program each individual player has, and try to have him put it back together. Eventually they do. It’s about slowing the moment down … creating and maintaining a good process.”

Meanwhile, there is also this: The Angels don’t just have Ohtani the pitcher to think about but Ohtani the hitter as well. Right now he’s hitting .148 with a .586 OPS in six games as a DH, but he does have two home runs and seven RBI, and the Angels are more threatening offensively when he’s in the batting order.

If he’s struggling on the mound one day a week, he can still help with the bat the rest of the week. It’s bad enough that the Angels have started this weirdest of all seasons 3-7. If both sides of Ohtani are somehow shut down … well, have we said enough bad things yet about 2020?

[email protected]

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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