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Shohei Ohtani's spring training home runs offer just the latest reminder of his otherworldly abilities: 'He's a unicorn'

GLENDALE, Arizona — After a couple of false starts, it was finally Sho Time.

Last Friday, Shohei Ohtani was scheduled to take part in his first live batting practice session of the spring — and first as a Los Angeles Dodger. He was slated to face lefty reliever Alex Vesia, and manager Dave Roberts quipped in the morning that he expected “a lot of fastballs away,” jokingly hinting that Vesia might not want to risk hitting the team’s prized acquisition.

Instead, Ohtani didn’t emerge from the clubhouse until Vesia was finished throwing. He took regular BP off Dino Ebel, crushing balls over the left- and right-field fences with stunningly even frequency.

On Sunday, Ohtani again appeared on the official workout agenda as an expected live BP participant. But again, no show — this time not even for regular BP.

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With Dodgers spring training commencing earlier than every other team's due to their season opener March 20 in Korea, the buzz surrounding Ohtani's presence at Camelback Ranch got a head-start it didn't even need. In turn, every passing day has introduced increasing levels of speculation regarding his progress toward on-field action following the elbow surgery that ended his 2023 season prematurely.

On Monday, those eager to see Ohtani take that next small step finally got their wish. In addition to the sizable crowd of fans lining the fences of the Dodgers’ practice fields, Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, was in attendance. Ohtani’s former manager, Phil Nevin, whose son Kyle is a prospect in the Dodgers’ organization, was also on hand and chatted up Ohtani before he grabbed his bat and readied to hit.

First, Ohtani stepped in against right-hander Ryan Brasier. He watched five pitches without swinging, three of which eased into the strike zone. “Give him something to hit!” a fan yelled, as if Brasier were pitching around his own teammate in a February scrimmage. Fortunately, Ohtani wouldn’t make that particularly impatient observer wait much longer.

Next, veteran Blake Treinen took the hill. Ohtani finally swung, first fouling a pitch off his foot and yelling out in anguish before hobbling back into the batter’s box and eventually going down swinging. Might Ohtani be compromised in his next and final at-bat?

Apparently not.

On the fifth pitch against righty J.P. Feyereisen, Ohtani connected in a big way. The ball soared with a majestic trajectory over the fence just to the right of the batter’s eye. This was one of six home runs launched by Dodgers hitters during this live BP session, but it was the only one that drew an audible reaction and even some applause from the fans looking on.

Ohtani did not talk to the media Monday, leaving the unparalleled herd of reporters to descend upon Feyereisen’s locker instead, prompting a few eye-rolls and a general sense of amusement from teammates around the room. Feyereisen — whom Tyler Glasnow referred to as “one of the best teammates ever,” having shared a Rays clubhouse with him in 2021 and 2022 — was predictably cool with the unexpected wave of attention.

Although the former 16th-round pick from a Division III school in Wisconsin might not boast quite the same pedigree as a generational Japanese supernova, he has one thing in common with his ultra-famous teammate: He too is working his way back from injury. Acquired from Tampa Bay in December 2022, the right-hander missed the entire 2023 season following shoulder surgery. When Feyereisen took the mound Monday, he was strictly focused on his own progression toward being 100 percent for Opening Day, and he didn’t know he was scheduled to face Ohtani until he was staring him down from 60 feet, 6 inches.

“You look at him in the box, and everybody gets quiet, like, ‘Shohei’s hitting. Let’s go watch,’” Feyereisen said. “It’s just another hitter — that’s the way you’re supposed to look at it. Obviously, with the following he has, it’s a bit different, but it’s still fun to face him.”

Pressed as to which offering Ohtani deposited over the right-center-field fence, Feyereisen disclosed, “I think it was a heater. I honestly don’t remember because I was kind of just going through the motions.”

“I think it was right down the middle,” he added, laughing. “That’s why it went so far.”

Before Ohtani was wowing on the backfields at Camelback Ranch, a handful of his new teammates got a sneak peek at their super-slugger colleague in the weeks following his landmark signing. Top prospect Dalton Rushing recalled witnessing the magnitude of Ohtani’s raw power while in the cage taking swings against underhand tosses during a winter workout at Dodger Stadium.

"I'm taking my swings, and to put into perspective, I would consider myself to have plus juice," Rushing, a talented catcher who smashed 23 homers in 64 games as a junior at Louisville en route to becoming the Dodgers' first selection in the 2022 MLB Draft, told Yahoo Sports. "And if I'm hitting off flips, I can sit in the 100-103 [mph exit velocity] range, maybe 104.

"So Shohei hops in the cage, and … Me and [Gavin] Lux are sitting in there watching. First flip, 104 off the bat. And we look at each other like, 'Is that human? What is that?' Two more flips: 106, 108. And he just starts climbing. He gets up to 110 on flips. I don't think he hit a ball softer than 102 off flips.

“He’s a unicorn.”

None of this is news, of course. Ohtani has demonstrated his otherworldly raw strength against elite competition in contexts that mean far more than a closed-door batting practice or a backfield blast off a teammate still rounding into form. The dude just led the American League in home runs, after all. Hitting the ball over the fence is kind of his thing.

But the palpable excitement surrounding the earliest stages of Ohtani’s Dodgers tenure is undeniably reminiscent of something fresher than he actually is. It’s a rejuvenation of the hype from when he first came to MLB — but without any of the doubts. And with the shroud of mystery surrounding the progression of his rehab from an elbow surgery we still don’t have all the details about, it’s no surprise that Ohtani’s daily activities are being observed with such intense curiosity.

If anything, moments such as Monday are a stark reminder of the evolution of Ohtani's offensive abilities and his cemented reputation as one of baseball's most fearsome hitters. During his first spring training in Arizona six years ago, it was his bat that elicited the most skepticism from evaluators regarding his ambitions as a two-way player. Now, his presence in the batter's box carries such weight that he remains baseball's greatest spectacle even as a full-time DH, if only temporarily.

As for when we can expect our next glimpse of greatness, that's unsurprisingly unclear. While Ohtani has stated on numerous occasions since his surgery that he expects to be ready to hit against the Padres on March 20 in Seoul, manager Dave Roberts has proceeded with caution when it comes to promising certain benchmarks along the way.

Roberts already ruled out Ohtani playing in the Dodgers' Cactus League opener against San Diego on Thursday, but it would seem reasonable to expect him to get some game reps before the Dodgers depart for Korea in a little more than three weeks. And as Roberts noted last week, "He's a lot further along than any of us not named Shohei would've expected — he's ahead of schedule."

Still, as with the live BP sessions, the safest bet is that we won’t know the timing of Ohtani’s spring debut until it’s actually happening. But whenever, wherever it is, the baseball world will be watching — eager for what he’ll do next.

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