Iwamura still feeling his way around
Third baseman's slow spring start isn't big concern for Rays
ST. PETERSBURG -- Akinori Iwamura had just lined a ball into right-center field when instincts took over. He quickly turned what would have been a single into a double.
At the time Akinori's hit fell in to drive in the go-ahead run in Friday's 8-3 win against the Pirates, the Devil Rays third baseman had been in a 1-for-22 slump.
"Even if that was a line [drive] to the second baseman, it was something that gives me a clue [on] how to improve," Iwamura said. "I want to hit in the winning run during the regular season. It feels good."
Despite the slow start, manager Joe Maddon is not worried about the Rays' most visible offseason acquisition.
"He is pulling off the ball a bit," Maddon said. "We're trying to help him along with that, but having not seen him in the past, it's hard to say what it takes for him to get that foot down at the right moment."
Iwamura said he's traditionally a slow starter, and Maddon is sensitive to the fact that his third baseman is in a new arena this season.
"I've been trying to stay in touch with him to figure out what it takes for him to get ready -- based on the cultural differences between our camp and the camp he's used to," Maddon said. "A mechanical issue [like with his swing] is very fixable over time. ... Next year, at this time, we'll have a benchmark. Right now, we have to rely on what he has to say, watch some video, come up with a couple of little things. I still have full confidence he will be ready by the beginning of the season."
In December, the Rays signed Iwamura to a three-year contract worth a guaranteed $7.7 million, with a club option for a fourth year at $4.25 million.
The Rays won Iwamura's negotiating rights through a posting system that enables Japanese players to play in the United States. With a high bid of $4.5 million -- paid to the Tokyo Yakult Swallows -- the Rays topped bids by the Indians and Padres.
Iwamura was a five-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove recipient with the Swallows of the Japanese Central League. The 28-year-old is a career .300 hitter, amassing 188 home runs -- 44 in '04, which is a Swallows record for most homers by a Japanese native -- and 570 RBIs in eight seasons with Yakult. Iwamura has hit at least 30 home runs and batted .300 or better in each of the past three seasons, and in '06, he played in a career-high 145 games and batted .311, fifth best in the Central League.
Although Iwamura has struggled to get on track offensively, his body of work suggests that he'll find his way.
"It's not like he's an experiment of any kind," Maddon said. "It's Japanese Major Leagues compared to ours, and I know there's a difference. I know, I know, I know. But, just watching him play, if I'm scouting this guy, I'm pretty impressed.
"This guy's a pro and he gets it. He's getting himself ready. And I believe he's going to be ready for the opening bell. And if he starts out slowly, that's not going to bother me. I'm not going to be concerned, panicked or anything. He's going to play well. I believe that. He's got nice skills. He's got really nice skills."
Maddon shakes his head about the fact that there are questions about whether or not Iwamura will pan out.
"It's so funny; I really find it funny," Maddon said. "This is an accomplished player. He's having a little bit of a Spring Training struggle, which a lot of guys do. Obviously, it's being magnified a little right now. He does things a little different in regard to his hitting style. But I fully believe he's going to adjust.
"And I believe he'll adjust quickly because of who he is. He's already learned the English language. He's becoming Americanized. I think he's a quick study ... and his defense has been really good."
Maddon said he's trying to just leave Iwamura alone.
"I trust in him and I believe the trust is deserved," Maddon said. "I think he'll prove us right in regard to signing him and how we're using him."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.