ANAHEIM — When Angels manager Joe Maddon decided to move Shohei Ohtani up to the leadoff spot, the hope was to prevent teams from pitching around the two-way star.
On Saturday, that decision paid early dividends as Ohtani led off the bottom of the first inning with a homer to push his MLB-leading total to 39 in the Halos’ 8-2 loss to the Astros at Angel Stadium.
According to Maddon, hitting leadoff has helped Ohtani return to form after a slow start to the second half of the season.
“I mean, every time we put somebody up there, they do well,” Maddon said. “He’s getting his stroke back. You saw it. … He just looks right, the ball’s going to left field again on a line. He’s covering the whole plate. His direction in his swing is better. I think whatever it was might have been a little fatigue. I think he’s getting it back right now. It looks really good.”
On the third pitch of his first at-bat, Ohtani turned on a slider that Astros starter Luis Garcia placed on the lower-middle portion of the zone. It was the second time Ohtani went deep in his first at-bat from the leadoff spot — the other against the Rays on June 25.
With the homer, Ohtani moved up in two Angels’ single-season ranks. He tied Reggie Jackson (1982) for the franchise record for most home runs in a season by a left-handed batter. It was also Ohtani’s 23rd at The Big A this year, which puts him one shy of Troy Glaus’ (2000) record.
Ohtani, who made his ninth start in the leadoff spot, finished the game 2-for-5. He drilled a 101.8 mph single in the third inning and stole his 17th base later in the frame. In his final at-bat of the game, he scorched a 114.9 mph liner to left fielder Michael Brantley.
In five games since moving into a leadoff role, Ohtani is 6-for-19 with two homers and four RBIs. Prior to the move, Ohtani was batting just .216 with four homers in 23 games after the All-Star break.
Maddon said Ohtani’s new role could remain moving forward.
“Let’s see what happens with it,” Maddon said. “Shohei is good with it, obviously, because he’s really looking like he had in the first half.”
The Angels, however, could not prevent the long ball in their second straight loss to the Astros.
Starter Jaime Barria entered Saturday with a 2.29 ERA in 19 2/3 innings over his last three starts, but he was knocked around for three runs on seven hits (one homer) and one walk in three-plus innings.
“The big difference was [when] I gave up that big home run,” Barria said through an interpreter. “I couldn’t make adjustments on some of those pitches. I kind of just left the ball out there.”
Things got worse in the sixth, as Junior Guerra loaded the bases on two walks and a single before surrendering a grand slam to Jake Meyers, his second homer of the game. It was the second night in a row the Angels served up a grand slam to Houston, and the third grand slam allowed in the Halos’ last four games.
“We’ve started well,” Maddon said. “The game is a solid game. We’re fighting to stay in it, and, all of a sudden, boom, there it goes. Those are tough. Those are tough to absorb. … That middle inning, we gotta stop. You need middle-inning closers to be very successful.”