J-Slanted: Disastrous Beginnings

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By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Contributor

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Two weeks into the MLB season, and situations couldn’t be worse for the Japanese players in the league. First and foremost, Tsuyoshi Nishioka will miss at least 4-6 weeks thanks to a fractured fibula sustained during a game against the Yankees. Whether you think Nick Swisher got his leg a little too high, or if you think takeout slides are just good, hard baseball, the bottom line is that Nishi is yet another casualty of a play not practiced in Japan.

Unfortunately, two of my all-time favorite players “learned” American style ball with similar hard-knock lessons. Tadahito Iguchi, who played in the MLB from 2005-2008 and won two World Series rings, suffered a deep knee bruise when Oakland’s Scott Haterberg took him out his rookie season. Iguchi never suffered a serious injury, but he was upended numerous times.

Back in 2009, Akinori Iwamura, at that time a Tampa Bay D-Ray, was in the midst of his finest season batting .310, with 8 stolen bases, 16 RBI, and 13 doubles over the first 44 games. Then the Marlins’ Chris Coghlan upended him with a Swisher-like take-down while trying to break up a double play. Unfortunately, Iwamura was seriously injured, partially tearing his ACL. While he was able to return later that season, he struggled mightily both as a hitter and in the field. The next season, unable to find any range in the field or hit the baseball, he was unceremoniously designated for assignment by the Pirates and then the Athletics. What truly saddens me is that now, at 32, he is back in Japan.

It’s interesting to note that both Iwamura and Nishioka were playing out of position —Nishioka a shortstop in Japan, Iwamura a third baseman. It should also be noted that both players firmly planted their left foot to make the strong throw, which is why they got hurt.

My good old buddy Kazuo Matsui tried to warn Nishi before the season about “not getting spiked during double plays.” Like the others, he was forced to move from his natural position and learn the dangers of second base on the fly.

Thankfully, Nishi is only going to miss a month and a half and doesn’t need surgery. Hopefully, he’ll be able to absorb the American game from the dugout and come back ready to contribute.

As for the rest of the pack, this season has started out nearly as bleak.

In what was supposed to be a make-or-break year (which can be said for any highly paid member of the BoSox every year), Daisuke Matsuzaka appears to be officially broken. After an offseason of adjustments and refocus, Matsuzaka has come out and lost both starts, sports a 12.86 ERA in seven innings and is making average ball players look downright Ted Williams esque to the tune a .412 batting average.

With all Matsuzaka has gone through, from having to learn the American game, adjust to the spotlight of Boston, find some sort of communion with his catcher and coach through a translator, to disagreements with management concerning training, coaches telling him to throw more strikes, to the support of fans demanding he be shipped back to Japan, I can’t help but feel a bit bad for the guy. Though, I’m sure loving that 2-9 Boston record.

Kosuke Fukudome started off the season with a .400 OBP, but is suffering from a minor hamstring strain. Takashi Saito, having been lit up in his first two outings, has been placed on the DL (disabled list) due to a tight hammy as well. The former Dodgers closer is sporting a 9.00 ERA and has blown a save and given up 5 hits in 2 innings of work.

After a brilliant spring, the Angels’ Hisanori Takahashi has struggled mightily in the early going. In 3.1 innings of work spread out over six appearances, the lefty has an 8.10 ERA and a .400 batting average against.

Hideki Matsui got his first homerun as an Athletic on Monday and has raised his average to .237. Yeah, raised it. Good grief. I worry about him because he’s striking out far more than he’s walking.

Is there any bright side? A bit. While his average is down, I never worry about Ichiro Suzuki in March and April. While he’s a career .330 hitter, in the first month of the season, he’s at .298. In fact, I’m encouraged by his 4 stolen bases and 6 walks. The swipes show me he’s still got his speed, and the walks show me he’s being more selective. The hits will come. Now, here’s hoping for some wins.

About the only player doing well is Orioles setup man Koji Uehara, who has struck out a pair, given up zero runs and earned a hold in 2.2 innings of work. Otherwise, everyone else seems to be way, way, way down.

I can’t say I fault them necessarily. I can’t imagine having to play with the knowledge that my home is either completely decimated, or continually being rocked by earthquakes. Hopefully, they’ll all find their way and we’ll have better news to report a week from now.

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Jordan Ikeda is a former Rafu Sports editor who writes from Torrance. He can be contacted by email. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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