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Gary Phillips: With his future uncertain, all eyes are on Shohei Ohtani


ANAHEIM — With the Yankees in town and trade rumors swirling around Shohei Ohtani, Japanese reporters were hard at work in Anaheim earlier this week.

For much of the group, Ohtani — not his Angels — is the beat. That means covering and writing about every little thing he does. That can be more challenging on some days than others, as there are only so many ways to describe Ohtani’s greatness without sounding stale. And even the two-way sensation has quiet games, which can leave Japanese reporters without much to say while racing against inconvenient deadlines in their home country.

But the impending free agent’s future has dominated the baseball landscape recently, and the Yankees series provided several storylines. Even though the pinstripers seem like an unlikely landing spot for Ohtani for several reasons, Japanese reporters still made it a point to question visiting Yankees writers about the theoretically possible pairing.

On Monday, this Yankees beat writer spent time fielding questions from Nobu Saito of Nikkan Sports News. He wanted to know if the Yankees had the prospects to pull a trade off (other farm systems are deeper); if the Yankees could pursue Ohtani in free agency (they already have several large contracts on the books); and if the non-defender could fit the Bombers’ roster (they already have a near-permanent DH in Giancarlo Stanton).

While Ohtani and the reporters dedicated to covering him await the Aug. 1 trade deadline, the international icon is in the midst of a sensational stretch, even by his standards.

With 20 home runs in his last 36 games, Ohtani has been on a power surge. But he’s also slashing .361/.476/.917 with six doubles, four triples, 35 RBI, and four stolen bases over that stretch.

Overall, Ohtani is hitting .306/.397/.678 with 76 RBI. He leads the league with seven triples and 35 home runs — and he has a 3.50 ERA and 139 strikeouts over 18 starts.

Ohtani’s crazy combination of stats led the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, the reigning MVP, to agree that, yeah, this guy is a “unicorn.”

Judge agreed to speak with Japanese and local reporters on Wednesday because Ohtani is on a pace that could threaten the American League’s single-season home run record. Judge set the mark last year, hitting 62 to topple Roger Maris.

Judge had 38 home runs after 95 games in 2022. Ohtani has 35 dingers in 95 games this season, putting him slightly behind Judge. A big night here or there could change that trajectory, though.

“Records are meant to be broken,” the injured Judge said before adding that he could always try breaking the record again if Ohtani sets a new mark this season. “It’s just a record, and it’ll be exciting for the game if he went out there and got 63-plus. So we’ll see what happens.”

Indeed, it would be fun for the sport. That applies to Ohtani at large, as it’s not unusual for him to wow audiences with historical firsts, big home runs and dazzling pitching performances.

Sometimes he does that all in one game.

“It’s incredible,” Judge said. “It’s fun to watch. I don’t like watching it in person when he’s playing against us doing what he’s doing, but it’s fun when you can turn on the TV and see that he’s throwing eight innings, striking out 10 and hitting two homers in a game. It’s pretty impressive. So excited for what he’s done so far. I’m looking forward to what else he does when we get out of town here.”

Ohtani burned the Yankees in Monday’s game when he crushed a game-tying home run after Aaron Boone didn’t consider an intentional walk. The blast came off Michael King.

“I wish it wasn’t at my expense, but he’s an incredible hitter,” King said when asked about Ohtani’s season. “We knew as a team that we didn’t want him to be the one that beat us.”

Ohtani then tripled on Tuesday. He went hitless in Wednesday’s game — which cemented a sweep for the Angels — but he still scored two runs.

As this reporter explored Angel Stadium in the early innings of Wednesday’s game, it was noticeable that seemingly every fan in attendance stopped what they were doing to watch an Ohtani at-bat. A quick glance at a small sample revealed no one was on their phone or walking or focused on concessions. All eyes were on the field.

Maybe that’s the norm in Anaheim, but it’s also worth wondering if that was a case of Angels fans taking in however many Ohtani moments they have left. After years of mediocrity despite employing two generational players — Mike Trout being the other — Ohtani is expected to leave. The question is when.

With the Angels still in the Wild Card hunt, his departure may be delayed, if only for a little while. But time appears to be running out in Anaheim.

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