Now you see it, now you don’t. That is Shohei Ohtani’s split-fingered fastball in a nutshell, the Angels right-hander using his trademark disappearing pitch to disarm the Tampa Bay Rays for five scoreless innings in Angel Stadium on Wednesday night.
Then what initially seemed like a questionable move by manager Joe Maddon and another bullpen meltdown laid Ohtani’s splendid start to waste, the Rays storming back for a 3-1 victory that sent the Angels to their fourth straight loss and 10th in 14 games.
Ohtani gave up one hit in five scoreless innings, striking out seven — five with his splitter — and walking six, before wobbling in the sixth, when he walked Yandy Diaz and Joey Wendle to open the inning.
Reliever Chris Rodriguez needed only six pitches to bail out Ohtani, getting Kevin Kiermaier to ground into a fielder’s choice, hitting Francisco Mejia with a pitch to load the bases and inducing an inning-ending double-play grounder from Yoshi Tsutsugo to preserve a 1-0 lead.
But instead of sticking with the hard-throwing Rodriguez to start the seventh, Maddon handed the ball to Junior Guerra, who walked Brett Phillips and gave up a bloop single to Willy Adames before Brandon Lowe crushed a three-run homer to center to give Tampa Bay a 3-1 lead.
Maddon revealed afterward that Rodriguez departed because of an injury.
“He had a little bit of a shoulder irritation, so I had to get him out,” Maddon said. “The plan was to have him go back out. He complained of a shoulder.”
Maddon said he was “curious” about the 94-mph fastballs Rodriguez was throwing, because he was averaging 96.5 mph before Wednesday night. Asked how concerned he is about the organization’s top pitching prospect, Maddon said, “I don’t know yet.”
The Angels went one for nine with runners in scoring position, failing to score after loading the bases with one out in the third and after putting the first two runners on in the eighth.
Jose Iglesias struck out and Phil Gosselin grounded out to end the third. Gosselin grounded into a double play and Juan Lagares grounded out to end the eighth.
Ohtani was the lone bright spot.
The two-way star throws his 89-mph splitter with the same arm speed and release point and on the same plane as his upper-90s fastball, but it takes a nose-dive as it approaches the plate, breaking anywhere from 27 to 35 inches. The result is usually a swinging strike, foul ball or weak contact.
Of his 84 pitches Wednesday night, 28 were splitters. Ohtani recorded eight outs with the pitch, and opposing batters are now 0 for 27 against him in plate appearances ending with the splitter, including 23 via strikeout.
“If he has command with his fastball, they have no chance laying off of his split,” Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz told The Times’ Jack Harris this week. “Because he comes out of the same slot, and it comes out firm in the middle of the zone, it drops and it has great late movement.”
The Angels made a flurry of moves before the game, most notably putting third baseman Anthony Rendon on the injured list because of a left-knee bruise, an injury he suffered when he fouled a ball off the knee Monday night.
An MRI test on Wednesday showed “no issues” outside of the bruise, an indication Rendon should return when eligible.