When Clayton Kershaw scaled the mound Tuesday, the magnitude of the moment wasn’t lost on Shohei Ohtani.
“He’s a pitcher I’ve watched since I was a student,” Ohtani said in Japanese.
The 15 seasons in the major leagues. The first All-Star Game starts. The game being played at Dodger Stadium.
So, when Ohtani stepped into the batter’s box to lead off the All-Star Game, he touched the brim of his helmet.
“To let him know I respect him,” Ohtani said.
Moments later, Ohtani did something else to signify his appreciation for the history in which he was about to be a part: He swung as hard as he could.
With Ohtani limiting himself to hitting, the All-Star Game was deprived of a Kershaw-Ohtani pitching matchup. What could have been a memorable inning was replaced by an unforgettable one-pitch at-bat, courtesy of Ohtani’s mindset and Kershaw’s willingness to challenge him.
When Derek Jeter played his final All-Star Game in 2014, Adam Wainwright threw him a down-the-middle fastball that he lined for a double. That wouldn’t happen in Japan, where such blatant acts of deference are generally reserved for retirement games.
“To be able to face him like this in an All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium isn’t a chance that comes often,” Ohtani said the day before the game. “I’d like to swing with everything I have.”
Ohtani said his goal was to homer.
He was from a culture in which athletes recognize special moments by exerting maximum effort, in part to ensure they won’t have any regrets.
In an on-field interview with Fox’s Tom Verducci before the game, Ohtani reiterated his pledge.
Asked what he was most looking forward to, Ohtani replied in English: “First pitch, full swing. That’s it.”
Kershaw played his part, his first pitch a waist-high 91-mph fastball away.
“I mean, you can’t throw the first pitch of an All-Star Game as a breaking ball,” Kershaw said. “You kind of had to give him a heater, I think just for everything. Had to do it.”
Ohtani kept his promise and swung.
“I was going to swing even if it was a ball,” he said.
Flare single to center.
“If possible, I wanted to hit it square or swing and miss,” Ohtani said. “I got the most in-between result, so that wasn’t very good.”
Kershaw counted the result as a victory, especially after he picked off Ohtani at first base.
“He didn’t hit it over the fence, so that was a win,” Kershaw said.
Ohtani figuratively tipped his cap to Kershaw, saying: “I said I was going to swing, so I imagine it would be awkward to throw there. I was impressed that he was able to throw it in a good spot.”
Informed of Ohtani’s publicly stated ambition to homer, Kershaw replied: “He’s going for a home run every time. He swings at the first pitch a lot. All he has to do is touch it and it will go a long way. Broke feel bat, at least.”
Of his pickoff of Ohtani, he said: “I just kind of lobbed it over there. I didn’t know what pitch to throw yet, so kind of giving myself a second and I got him.”
Ohtani broke into a smile and rushed back to the American League bench with his helmet in hand.
“I was thinking I wanted to run if I had the opportunity,” he said.
Kershaw left the game after pitching a scoreless first inning. Ohtani walked against Joe Musgrove of the San Diego Padres during his second plate appearance in the third inning.
Ohtani’s first-inning single was his first hit against Kershaw, against whom he had been 0 for 8 with three strikeouts. They most recently faced each other Friday night, when Ohtani was 0 for 3 with two strikeouts against Kershaw in a 9-1 road win by the Dodgers over the Angels.
Ohtani was especially complimentary of Kershaw on the eve of the All-Star Game, recalling how he admired him from afar. Ohtani was in middle school when Kershaw broke into the major leagues. By the time Ohtani was thinking of signing with the Dodgers as a high school senior, Kershaw had already won the first of his three Cy Young Awards.
Asked what in particular about Kershaw impressed him, Ohtani said: “No. 1 is timing and command. He can replicate his pitches. He can continue pitching with his high-quality pitches on a pitch-by-pitch basis. He doesn’t make many mistakes.
“I think the degree to which he’s a finished product as a pitcher is through the roof.”
The meeting Tuesday between Ohtani and Kershaw consisted of a single pitch and a pickoff throw delivered three pitches into the next at-bat. The confrontation was brief. But in Ohtani’s mind, it figures to be timeless.