Vladimir Guerrero Jr. sought out Shohei Ohtani last year during the first day of All-Star game festivities and pantomimed holding a camera. The Toronto Blue Jays slugger wanted a shot with the Angels’ two-way phenom.
Ohtani’s response? Afterward, he recalled thinking, “Why is he asking? It’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. I’d love to take a picture with him.”
Two of the best made like besties, flashing the infectious, mega-watt smiles of young stars making an exceedingly difficult game appear ridiculously easy. Guerrero led MLB in batting average, on-base percentage, OPS and RBIs. Ohtani led in home runs and slugging percentage while also dominating on the mound.
They gushed about each other’s abilities. So smitten was Guerrero that he had the photo blown up to poster size, and it hangs on a wall in his house.
By season’s end, Ohtani won the American League MVP award and Guerrero finished second.
They met again Thursday night at Angel Stadium, Ohtani and his picture-perfect physique perched on the mound, Guerrero and his unblemished swing menacing at the plate.
Ohtani had no trouble with Guerrero in his first two at-bats, but hung a 76-mph curveball that the 23-year-old Blue Jays slugger hooked inside the left-field foul pole for a home run in the sixth inning that extended Toronto’s lead en route to a 6-3 victory.
Earlier damage came from George Springer, who led off the game with a home run and singled in the third, and Bo Bichette, who doubled in two runs in a three-run third.
Ohtani experienced back soreness in the first inning and required massage therapy after the third. Taylor Ward pinch-hit for him in the eighth. He was noncommittal about whether he could serve as designated hitter Friday.
Former Dodgers left-hander Hyun Jin Ryu, who is struggling in the third year of a four-year, $80-million contract he signed as a free agent, outpitched Ohtani. Ryu, who experienced forearm soreness a month ago, scattered six hits and two runs over five innings but only one of his 65 pitches touched 90 mph.
“It’s kind of like he has an invisi-ball,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “He conceals it well and it gets on guys quickly. He knows exactly where he wants to throw the ball, he knows how to get in on a right-hander, how to fade away from a left-handed hitter. He has a great feel for what he does.”
For Guerrero, the home run was the first time he’d done much of anything in Anaheim. He’d been two for 21 with no extra-base hits in six previous games at Angel Stadium, a venue he remembers fondly as his personal play yard when his Hall of Fame father starred for the Angels from 2004 to 2009.
“I’d bat in the cages with my dad then take ground balls,” Guerrero said. “I couldn’t shag during batting practice because I wasn’t 15 yet. I remember it all. My favorite players were Kendrys Morales and Erick Aybar.”
Equipped with the genes, access, support system and drive to succeed, Guerrero was a can’t-miss kid. He signed with the Blue Jays at age 16 out of the Dominican Republic, and by 20 was an everyday player in Toronto.
By his standards he’s struggling this season, batting .263 with nine home runs and 23 RBIs. He has been hitting an inordinate number of ground balls and taking a page out of his dad’s playbook, swinging freely at pitches outside the strike zone. Difference is, Vlad Sr. was perhaps the best bad-ball hitter ever. Vlad Jr. is less than otherworldly in that regard.
“I’ve been working on being more selective,” Guerrero said. “It’s a process, it’s not easy. Before every game, coaches show me the videos from the day before. Seeing that, I create a plan. That’s been helping me a lot.”
It helped him get the upper hand on Ohtani, who struck out 10 but gave up five earned runs in six innings, throwing 61 strikes in 93 pitches. His ERA climbed to 3.45. Of Guerrero, he said, “I study the great hitters. . . . It was a good experience. Of course, I was hit today, but even then, I think it will be a good experience.”
Live and learn, in other words. No doubt their battle will continue, two undisputed stars who don’t conceal their mutual admiration but relish the competition.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism