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Angels’ Shohei Ohtani wins AL MVP award; Phillies’ Bryce Harper captures NL honor

Shohei Ohtani had a remarkable season for the Angels. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels’ incandescent two-way star, and Philadelphia Phillies slugger Bryce Harper won baseball’s MVP awards Thursday. Neither was much of a surprise.

Ohtani was a unanimous pick for the American League honor by turning in the most prolific and productive two-way season in the modern era, one of the few players whose exploits might be undersold when being compared to Babe Ruth.

Harper, who captured 17 of 30 first-place votes to win the NL honor, lifted the Phillies onto his back and kept them in contention to the very end, finishing with a monstrous 1.044 on-base-plus-slugging percentage that bested every other hitter in the majors. It was the second MVP award for Harper, who also won it while with the Washington Nationals in 2015 — before he had kids, before he grew up.

Harper broke down in tears when Phillies legend Mike Schmidt announced him as the winner on MLB Network.

“I don’t think the fans understand that we don’t know [who won] until they know as well,” Harper said. “The two guys next to me had unbelievable years that shouldn’t go unrecognized. And knowing I’m sitting with my wife, looking at my kids with my family there, it just makes you emotional.”

He and Ohtani beat out players who compiled historic offensive seasons of their own before the age of 24. Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 22, threatened for the AL triple crown and settled for 48 homers and a .311 average while playing almost every day.

Meanwhile, Harper’s former Nationals teammate Juan Soto finished second in voting, with six first-place votes. The 23-year-old posted a tribute to Harper on his Instagram after the announcement.

Soto easily could have won the award himself. He rocketed back into MVP contention after a relatively slow first half with Barry Bondsian numbers after the all-star break, finishing the season with more walks (145) than any player since Bonds in his record-setting 2004 season. By August, the Nationals had jettisoned all but a few of the experienced hitters who once protected him in that lineup, but the lefty’s discipline never waned. He finished the season with more walks than strikeouts.

But it was Harper who joined Ohtani as a 2021 MVP, a fitting combination of superstars who have played their entire careers under the weight of MVP expectations. At times, they couldn’t help but fall short. But this year, both players were exactly who they always seemed they could be.

Ohtani somehow stands tall despite carrying the weight of the baseball universe’s unrelenting gaze at every second, despite being so talented that he simply never gets a break. No one had participated in the Home Run Derby and started the All-Star Game on the mound before Ohtani did it this year. He said later he was, of course, exhausted.

And there is Harper, who arrived on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a teenager, preordained with expectations so tied to his name that he never really could exceed them. Like Ohtani, he doesn’t always meet them, slowed by injuries or slumps or any of the many personal blockades that appear in a season as long as the ones they play.

But when he does, Harper changes any lineup dramatically: He became just the fourth outfielder in baseball history to have at least 100 runs, 100 walks, 40 doubles and 35 home runs in a season. Babe Ruth, Stan Musial and Bonds are the others.

Harper, of course, has been here before. He became the youngest unanimous MVP selection when he won after his dominant 2015 season at age 23. Only Cal Ripken Jr. and Robin Yount had more distance between their first and second MVP awards.

But he is different now, six seasons, a new uniform and two children away from the kid who seemed unstoppable then. The talent hasn’t changed. The man wielding it has. Since Albert Pujols won his third — and presumably final — NL MVP award in 2009, when he was still with St. Louis, the award had gone to a different winner in 11 straight seasons until Harper broke that run Thursday.

For Ohtani, the subject of extravagant presentations by MLB teams to entice him to their city when he decided to make the move from Japan ahead of the 2018 season, the baseball world has been waiting to see just how high his talent could take him.

The Angels were one of the teams that assured Ohtani he would be allowed to pitch and hit for them despite the fear of increased vulnerability to injury. Injuries have limited him since, preventing the man with the 100-mph fastball from starting consistently.

But in 2021, thanks in part to a steady plan and diligent scheduling, Ohtani was able to stay healthy from start to finish. He not only finished with the second-highest home run total in the majors (46) and a walk rate that trailed only Harper, Soto and Joey Gallo, he also went 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 130⅓ innings.

The righty averaged 95.7 mph on his fastball, the 14th fastest among big league starters. He paired it with a devastating splitter that helped him accumulate the 14th-highest strikeout rate among starters, too.

Perhaps Ohtani’s pitching season wouldn’t have merited Cy Young consideration on its own. But paired with an offensive year that saw him emerge as one of the game’s more feared hitters, his qualifications for MVP — almost inarguably, the most valuable, versatile, all-around player of his time — were unimpeachable.

Through his interpreter, Ohtani said he didn’t have any big plans to celebrate the award, no grand party to celebrate the achievement.

“Probably spend a lonely night by myself,” he said, before correcting that his mother and sister were in town, so he might see them. But one award does not the expectations lift, and Ohtani made clear that he would be going to bed early: He has workouts in the morning.