Iwamura is quick study at second base
Former third baseman learns ropes to accommodate Longoria
ST. PETERSBURG -- A quick glance at the Rays' infield revealed something was out of place. After a double-take, Akinori Iwamura proved to be the culprit. Instead of being anchored at the hot corner, the Rays' treasure from the Far East stood at second.
Nothing new there. After all, Iwamura's move to second base has been well chronicled since the closing days of the 2007 season. Still, seeing him on the other side of the infield looked funny.
"It's definitely different seeing him over there, because he was so great at third base," Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said. "He's the type of athlete who can play any position. But it is a little strange."
Thus far, Iwamura has given everyone in Rays camp a good idea about what a great athlete he is with the relative ease he's shown while executing the change of positions.
"He's going to be fine," said Jason Bartlett, the Rays' new shortstop. "Everybody makes a big deal about it, but he's an athlete. ... I don't think it's going to be a problem at all."
Iwamura flashed an ample amount of leather during his first campaign with the Rays in 2007 when he made acrobatic plays look routine, but circumstances dictated a change.
With top prospect Evan Longoria making a rapid ascent toward the Major Leagues, where he will become the Rays' third baseman, Iwamura was asked to spend his offseason working on playing the new position -- a position he had not played since his junior high days.
He began taking ground balls in November, growing familiar with life on the other side of the diamond, along with its accompanying nuances.
"Everything's reversed from third base," Iwamura said. "That's about the only thing I'm concerned about.
"I'm very confident at second base. And at the same time, I've been practicing a lot at second, so that gives me some kind of hint about it. But the most important thing is to play as many games as possible during the spring so I can get the right instincts."
Iwamura is in tremendous shape and looks leaner in his uniform, and for good reason.
"Playing second base takes more range, fielding-wise, and it could be good for me because it'll make me stay in shape," he said.
Infield coach Tom Foley likes the initial results of the move.
"He's doing great," Foley said. "There are some little things he has to do to help him out, but as far as fundamentals, he's doing great.
"Here's one thing with Aki: He has thrown from the side, he's got good movement laterally. He's made those off-balance throws from third base. [At second base], the only thing we've asked him to do is -- even if it's a routine play -- make sure it's a firm throw. It doesn't have to be full out. Just make sure everything's a firm throw."
Foley believes making the pivot on double plays will prove to be the biggest adjustment for Iwamura.
"At shortstop, you can see everything. At second, you have to have a feel for where the runner is," Foley said. "For him, it's just game situations. Get out there, play the position, feel comfortable and know where you're going."
Obviously, there will be some plays that can't be simulated in drills.
"Those things are just going to have to be reaction in the course of a game," Foley said.
Foley doesn't know how long it will take Iwamura to be totally comfortable in his new position, but one gets the feeling it's not going to be long.
"Aki's a great athlete and seems to have a real good grip on second base already," Foley said. "It's just a matter of playing games. When you go from one side of the diamond to the other side, and all of a sudden, you get a ball in the gap: What are your responsibilities? Those things have to be reactionary once the season starts."
Foley's first glance at Iwamura this spring told him all was well.
"When we first came out, you always have some concerns," Foley said. "Aki worked out with Bartlett and did a lot of things right. He did a lot of work before he came out here. One thing about him, he's got quick feet, and quick feet create quick hands. I think, around the base, that's really going to help him out. For me, it's catch the ball, throw the ball. Make it simple."
In addition to learning the position, Iwamura must grow familiar with Bartlett.
"I just think that marriage between second base and shortstop, that's going to be primary," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Just to get those guys on the same page and kind of become one heartbeat in the middle."
Finding the chemistry won't be hard according to Bartlett, who added: "But it doesn't come overnight."
"It's just something where you go out there and get your reps and it will come," Bartlett said. "We'll do live ground balls during [batting practice], and we already have a little bit of a feel."
Earlier this spring, Iwamura threw a jab at friend and former teammate Ty Wigginton after being asked if he was going to be able to play second. To it, he replied: "It's a challenge to me, but I know I can do it. Wiggy can do it, so I can do it."
Several days later, Iwamura was asked how he was advancing in relation to Wigginton.
"I haven't passed Wiggy for sure," Iwamura said. "I'm trying to catch up to him for sure, if I cannot reach Wiggy's level, I won't be able to become an All-Star."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.