Shohei Ohtani hits 430-foot shot for first Dodgers home run

LOS ANGELES — The first person Shohei Ohtani encountered on his way to the dugout was Teoscar Hernandez, who, amid so much newness and so much turmoil, has become quite possibly his best friend on the team. Hernandez, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ affable corner outfielder, stood near the railing and bestowed Ohtani with the offering that awaits every teammate who homers: a face full of sunflower seeds.

Ohtani had finally broken through.

The past four months had seen him face the pressure of a $700 million contract, the transition to a new organization and, most shockingly, the uneasiness of a betting scandal that led to the firing of his longtime interpreter and closest confidant, Ippei Mizuhara. Added to all that was then a slow start through the season’s first eight games. But on Wednesday night, in the late stages of a 5-4 victory that solidified a sweep of the division-rival San Francisco Giants, Ohtani cranked his first home run, a seventh-inning, 430-foot drive to right-center field.

It came on the final day of the Dodgers’ first homestand, in front of a sold-out crowd of nearly 53,000 people.

For the first time as a Dodger, it seemed, Ohtani belonged.

“There certainly was some relief,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I’m certain of that.”

Ohtani, the American League’s unanimous MVP in 2021 and 2023, slashed only .242/.297/.333 through his first eight games and was in the midst of his longest homerless drought to begin a season. He had previously expressed feeling slightly off with his swing. But Roberts noticed signs of him getting back in sync as Wednesday’s game played out, particularly with an opposite-field lineout in the fourth inning against left-hander Kyle Harrison.

Ohtani came up again with two outs and the Dodgers leading by only a run in the bottom of the seventh, facing another left-hander in Taylor Rogers. He waited back just enough on a 3-1 sinker up and away and pulled it 105.6 mph. It was the first home run Rogers had given up on a sinker since September 2022; he threw the pitch 346 times last season.

“Honestly, very relieved that I was able to hit my first homer,” said Ohtani, whose homerless streak extended to 18 games dating back to last season, the second-longest drought of his career. “It’s been a while, and honestly my swing hasn’t been great, so, overall, very relieved.”

Ohtani, speaking through new interpreter Will Ireton, met the woman who caught his home run and retrieved the baseball in exchange for two caps, another game-used ball and a bat.

Between Ohtani’s first two games of the season in South Korea, ESPN reported that at least $4.5 million in wire transfers had been sent from Ohtani’s bank account to a Southern California bookmaking operation that is under federal investigation. An Ohtani spokesman and Mizuhara initially told ESPN that Ohtani sent the money to help pay off Mizuhara’s gambling debts. Mizuhara then said Ohtani had no knowledge of his debts and had not transferred the money, while Ohtani’s camp alleged a “massive theft” had taken place. Days later, on the Monday before the Dodgers’ stateside opener, Ohtani delivered a long statement in which he denied ever placing sports bets and said Mizuhara, who was promptly fired by the Dodgers, “has been stealing money” and “told lies.”

Ohtani, the biggest baseball star in the world, had already been covered feverishly in his native Japan. The salaciousness of a betting scandal amplified the noise around him, all while he was preparing for a season of grand expectations. Through that, teammates and coaches marveled at how Ohtani never let on that any of that bothered him — while admitting they had no idea what was going on internally. It’s why they all seemed so happy to see him homer.

“It was nice to see that relief off his shoulders and his face, everything,” Dodgers infielder Miguel Rojas said. “It’s really hard. That guy works extremely hard to be a professional and deal with everything every single day. There’s a lot of media, he’s recovering from a surgery. We ask a lot of Shohei, and for us to see him get some success — it’s always important and it’s always nice for us to see him feel comfortable in the clubhouse around the new guys. I think it’s going to be huge now that he got the first homer out of the way. Now he can just relax and play baseball.”

The Dodgers won six of seven games in their season-opening homestand and have scored at least five runs in each of their nine games in 2024. Since 1900, only the 1932 New York Yankees (13) had a streak of more than 10 five-run games to begin a season. Mookie Betts has been off to a scorching start, and Freddie Freeman, Will Smith, Max Muncy and Hernandez have all made major contributions, exemplifying the depth of the Dodgers’ lineup.

They haven’t needed Ohtani to produce.

Perhaps he will now, too.

“I know everyone is saying, ‘Finally,’ but it’s still early,” said Dodgers outfielder Jason Heyward, placed on the injured list because of back tightness before Wednesday’s game. “It’s still very, very early.”

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