SDUT wrote:PEORIA, Ariz. – Akinori Otsuka could hit a nail on the head. He could thread the needle in a haystack. If other pitchers operate with surgical precision, Otsuka has the pinpoint control to practice acupuncture.
That was Otsuka's reputation, at least, before Padres manager Bruce Bochy asked his son, Greg, to warm up the new Japanese import earlier this month at Petco Park.
When Otsuka started bouncing his breaking ball and misfiring with his fastball, Greg Bochy started to wonder if the pitcher's command had cleared customs.
"How big is their strike zone?" the manager's son wanted to know.
Answer: Depends on the umpire. Same as here.
Translation: not to worry.
If Otsuka was "all over the place," (Bruce Bochy's description) in his first stateside warmup session in San Diego, the right-handed reliever was back on the bullet train yesterday during the Padres' first formal workout of spring training.
Pitching coach Darren Balsley said Otsuka's command was "unusually good" for the first day of spring training. Randy Smith, the Padres' director of professional and international scouting, observed that Otsuka's pitches were consistently at the knees or below. Catcher Ramon Hernandez, speaking in Spanish, said, "He threw soft, but he threw strikes."
Otsuka's pitches are around the plate so regularly they could be arrested for loitering. He struck out 110 hitters over the last two seasons with the Chunichi Dragons and Osaka Kinetsu, while walking only eight. He has plunked one batter in four years and thrown one wild pitch since 2001.
How does he do it?
"Umm, many practice," Otsuka said yesterday. "Long time."
What difference does he notice about American baseball?
"Power," Otsuka said.
Is there a major league hitter he is eager to face?
"Barry Bonds," he said.
Though Padres officials suspect Otsuka, 32, understands more English than he speaks, they have hired an interpreter to assist with instruction and interviews. Jun Takahashi, who previously worked in conditioning for the Padres' Mobile (Ala.) Class AA affiliate, is also serving as Otsuka's cook while the pitcher awaits the April arrival of his wife, Akemi.
"He likes everything but the (American) food," Takahashi said yesterday. "Tonight, I'm making ginseng pork."
At each workout station yesterday – bunting, fielding, throwing – Takahashi shadowed Otsuka and translated for his coaches. Later, Takahashi translated Balsley's English evaluation for the 15 Japanese media types who attended the workout. (Anticipating a season-long siege, Padres PR director Luis Garcia has already presented Balsley with a Japanese phrase book.)
"We're kind of in uncharted waters here," General Manager Kevin Towers said. "I would imagine Aki knows enough English. (But) let's just hope he doesn't need too many visits to the mound."
Should a flaw develop in Otsuka's delivery, it might be difficult to fix on the fly. His windup is a wonder of body control, but highly unorthodox by American standards. Like many Japanese pitchers, there is a pronounced pause at the height of Otsuka's leg-lift, a momentary hesitation that could play havoc with the timing of major league hitters.
"There are a lot of pauses in their delivery, where they gather themselves over the rubber," Balsley said. "They work on balance a lot. It doesn't seem as fluid as the pitchers out here, but, for them, it works."
One second, Otsuka is as still as a statue. The next, he's flinging a fastball across the outside corner. Until the hitters adjust, Akinori Otsuka is going to catch some fellows flat-footed.
With the postoperative Trevor Hoffman expected to reclaim his role as a full-time closer and Rod Beck available to fill in and set up, Otsuka figures to fall in the middle of Bochy's back-loaded bullpen. He has saved 137 games in seven seasons in Japan, but will likely work the sixth and/or seventh inning for the Padres.
"His fastball is a little true, doesn't have a lot of life," Towers said. "But he's a strike-thrower and he's got a good slider that looks like a split-finger.
"Our new philosophy here is not that we've walked away from velocity. But the more strike-throwers you have on your staff, the better off you're going to be – if you can locate (and) change speeds."
Though Otsuka represents the Padres' first plunge into the Japanese talent pool, his repertoire resembles that of Hoffman and Beck.
"You'll see him pitch in the 88-92 (mph) range," Smith said. "He's not going to throw 98 miles an hour, but he has good command on his fastball. A lot of people said his slider was the best breaking ball in Japan."
Towers characterizes Otsuka as a "bulldog type." Smith is reassured by "the way he carries himself."
"There's a lot of pressure because they're pitching basically for their country," Smith said. "Everybody in their country is aware of them and some people are more equipped to handle it than others."
Akinori Otsuka is equipped to throw strikes. That's a start.