Found March 08, 2012 on Fox Sports North:
FORT MYERS, Fla. Japanese pitching sensation Yu Darvish made his spring training debut Wednesday for the Texas Rangers. Between 100 and 150 media members descended on Peoria, Ariz., to watch Darvish.Tsuyoshi Nishioka used to command that type of media attention. Well, maybe not reporters by the hundreds, but there was a time when Japan's media contingency focused their attention on the Minnesota infielder, following and documenting his every move. Last spring training, the Twins had to set up an auxiliary press box to accommodate the influx.These days? Not so much. The press box at Hammond Stadium, the Twins' spring training field, has only a few seats designated for Japanese media. Unlike last spring, reporters from Japan aren't part of the daily grind. During Minnesota's 99-loss season in 2011, many moved on to cover other Japanese players."Because he struggled, and the team also struggled," said Hideki Okuda, who covered Nishioka in Minnesota last season for the Sports Nippon Newspaper.After his ballyhooed arrival in the United States, Nishioka had a rough time offensively and defensively in his first year in the major leagues. He misplayed balls at shortstop and couldn't put anything together at the plate."It was definitely a disappointing and tough season," Nishioka said through his translator.Among the biggest disappointments for Nishioka in 2011 was a broken leg. He suffered the injury during the first week of the season, which further hindered his ability to adjust to the American style of play. In fact, the play on which he was hurt a hard breakup play at second base was something that isn't seen during Japanese games.Turning the double play has been one of the things Nishioka has been working on with former Twin and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor."He's very open to instruction," Molitor said of Nishioka. "Defensively, as far as actual fundamentals, I think he's really cleaned up his ability to turn the double play at second base, which was a big issue that resulted in that injury last year, at least partly."Once he returned from his injury, Nishioka a batting champion in Japan couldn't find his swing. He hit just .226 with a .278 on-base percentage and only five extra-base hits in 68 games with the Twins. Defensively, the former Gold Glove winner in the Japanese League had problems in the field. He committed 12 errors, including 10 at shortstop.Now in his second spring training with the Twins, Nishioka has looked like a different player, Molitor believes, than he did as a rookie last year."He looks a little stronger," Molitor said. "A little different circumstances than last year. A lot more hype last year with his signing and his press conference. He kind of expected to win a job, which he did. This year, it's changed. I think he realizes that he might have a couple people ahead of him, at least to start."Among those that could earn starting jobs over Nishioka are veteran Jamey Carroll and Alexi Casilla. The Twins signed Carroll this offseason with the hope he can be their everyday shortstop. Casilla, meanwhile, can play either middle-infield position and spent the majority of 2011 at second base.Casilla saw first-hand the struggles Nishioka went through in adjusting to a new league and new teammates."During the season, he was learning every day. You don't learn everything right away," Casilla said of Nishioka. "It's a process. As soon as other things happen during the game, you're learning. Every day you learn a new thing. Especially for him."Part of the learning process for Nishioka included a new language. Last year, the Twins' middle infield was a cultural melting pot. With Nishioka a native Japanese speaker and the Dominican-born Casilla speaking Spanish, the language barrier became an issue. But Casilla learned some phrases in Japanese to help accommodate his new double-play partner. "I was writing it down, how to communicate with him," Casilla said. "Like, ball in the gap,' how to trail, right-right, left-left.' I forgot everything now."How is Nishioka's Spanish now?"Terrible," Casilla joked.What about Casilla's Japanese?"Worse," he said.Like Casilla, Nishioka can play either position. Despite playing mostly shortstop in Japan, he began the year at second base. But Nishioka moved back to shortstop upon his return from the broken leg.He's played equal time at both positions so far this spring, and it remains to be seen where he'll be most comfortable during the season."I think he profiles better at second base," Molitor said. "I know he played more shortstop in Japan, but I think his tools are probably more aligned with that position. Not that he can't play short, but I think second base in the long run is going to be a better position for him."While he's more familiar with shortstop, Nishioka said he's willing to play either position."I think it's just my job to put it all out there, wherever Gardy puts me," he said.Nishioka entered Thursday's game against Tampa Bay as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning. After fouling off several pitches, Nishioka grounded to the shortstop. The ball was bobbled and Nishioka reached first base safely, but it was ruled a hit instead of an error. Immediately, the Japanese media in the press box thanked the scorekeeper for the ruling, as if they were looking for any positive nugget of information they can relay home about Nishioka.Those reporters hope there are more good things to come for Nishioka in 2012. So do the Twins, and they're being patient."There are a lot of things that are different in the U.S. than there are the way they play in the Japanese style," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "Let him get his feet underneath him a little bit. He put a good at-bat or two together (the other night), which was good to see. " But yeah, he's got some things he needs to work on defensively, as everybody does out there, frankly."Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.
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