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04/09/07 9:13 PM ET

Notes: Iwamura making big impression

Rays third baseman off to best start for Japanese player

ARLINGTON -- While the Rays have their Akinori in third baseman Akinori Iwamura, the Rangers have theirs in right-hander Akinori Otsuka.

Iwamura has been friends with Otsuka since Otsuka played in the Minor Leagues in Japan with Iwamura's brother, Takashi. When asked about Otsuka, Iwamura did not respond in Japanese, he simply smiled and said in perfect English: "He's my friend."

Iwamura and Otsuka have only met twice on the field since the teams they played for in Japan were in separate leagues and they did not have interleague play. One of the times Iwamura did face Otsuka brought an interesting reaction from Iwamura.

"I couldn't stop laughing," Iwamura said. "If I face him in the Major Leagues, I'll try not to smile. In Japan I had that experience when I faced him."

Iwamura could break down in laughter at home plate and it's doubtful anybody with the Rays would say anything given the strong start he's had.

Iwamura ranked second in the Major Leagues in batting heading into Monday night's game against the Rangers. He was hitting .529 (9-for-17) and trails only Trot Nixon (.556) of the Indians. Iwamura has hit safely in his first five Major League games and has reached base in 13 of 21 trips to the plate. He is off to the best start of any of the Japan League stars who have jumped to the Major Leagues.

Iwamura started slowly during the spring, but Maddon never lost faith in him, which Iwamura said he greatly appreciated.

"I saw a young professional," said Maddon when explaining his belief in Iwamura. "I never saw doubt in his face. ... From the day I met this young man I could see he likes [the attention]. I just had a strong belief he'd be OK."

The best starts by Japan League alumni after five games are: Iwamura, (.529); Ichiro, Mariners 2001 (.417); Tsuyoshi Shingo, Mets 2001, (.400); Tadahito Iguchi, White Sox 2005 (.389); Kenji Johjima, Mariners 2006 (.333); Kaz Matsui, Mets 2004 (.316); and Hideki Matsui, Yankees 2003 (.304).

Lineup variation: Rocco Baldelli was back in center field Monday night with Elijah Dukes being used as the DH. Maddon said he has no set schedule with Baldelli, who was used as the DH Sunday after playing center field Saturday night, only that he'll continue to talk to Baldelli to make sure Baldelli's right hamstring is fine.

Baldelli "has done so well to this point, so why mess with it," said Maddon, explaining they'll continue to proceed the way they have been.

Maddon would like to get B.J. Upton into some games at center field, too. He also expressed interest in seeing how Dukes handles being the DH, noting that it's "what you do between the at-bats" that often determines success or failure as the DH.

Zobrist off slowly: Ben Zobrist is off to a slow start at the plate, hitting just .059 entering Monday night's game. Maddon is not concerned about his shortstop, he just wants him to relax a little more.

"Nobody can try harder," Maddon said. "Nobody can work harder. Nobody can care more than him."

Maddon complimented the way Zobrist has played the field and he also pointed out that he has had some hard luck at the plate.

"He led us in hard-hit outs last year and he's doing it again this year," Maddon said. "[I told him to] just try a little bit easier. It's going to happen."

More about Kazmir: Scott Kazmir has 15 strikeouts on the season, which ties him with the Twins' Johan Santana and the Phillies' Brett Myers for the most in the Major Leagues. The Rays' ace struck out 10 Blue Jays on Sunday, including his first eight outs by way of the K. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since the inception of the DH in 1973, only one other American League pitcher recorded eight or more strikeouts through his first 2 2/3 innings pitched. Ron Guidry of the Yankees had nine strikeouts on May 10, 1986 against the Rangers and finished the game with 11 in a 4-3 win at Texas.

Down on the farm: Durham right-hander Andy Sonnanstine limited Syracuse to just a run on two hits and a walk in six innings while striking out eight in his Triple-A debut. Since the start of 2005, no Minor Leaguer has won more games than Sonnanstine's 30. ... Double-A Montgomery third baseman Evan Longoria hit his first home run of the year, a two-run shot that broke a 2-2 tie; last year's No. 1 pick now has eight hits through four games and is batting .615.

Up next: The Rays will play the second game of their three-game series against the Rangers in an 8:05 ET contest Tuesday night at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Right-hander Jae Seo will start for the Rays and will be opposed by right-hander Jamey Wright.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.