FORT MYERS, FLA. -- I watched tonight's Twins game from a narrow spot in a crowded press box at Hammond Stadium. Tsuyoshi Nishioka was making his American spring training debut, and the Japanese media was here in force.
When Nishioka came up in the first inning, Twins players squeezed in to catch a view along the dugout rail. He swung and missed at Josh Beckett's first pitch before hitting a hard grounder to shortstop. Nishioka's speed from the lefthanded batter's box made it a close play.
“He hit a rocket,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We know he can run, but he was flying. That’s a feel-good for us because we like the hustle, and he was flying.”
Nishioka made two tough plays in the second inning, one to his left and one to his right. On the one to his left, or forehand side, you could see his quickness, as the ball was hit sharply toward the hole by Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Nishioka wound up handling all five of his chances, including four ground balls and a high pop up that fooled him a bit in the dimly lit stadium.
"Nishi made, I think, three great plays out there, not easy plays," Gardenhire said. "The field was wet, the ball was skipping pretty good, and he made them look pretty doggone easy."
Nishioka fouled out to the catcher in his second at-bat against Clay Buchholz. Gardenhire said he asked Nishioka if he wanted another at-bat, and Nishioka said yes because he felt like he was "brand new playing baseball."
In the fifth inning, after Joe Benson's three-run triple stretched the Twins' lead to 4-0, Nishioka came up against Japanese countryman Hideki Okajima, a lefthander, which meant Nishioka batted from the right side. He flared an RBI single to right-center field that time.
After leaving the game for a pinch-runner, Nishioka addressed the Japanese media, doing one session for TV and another with the print reporters before meeting with the English-speaking scribes.
Speaking through an interpreter, Nishioka said, "I was not nervous, but once the starting lineup was called, and my name was called on the screen, it was a very special moment for me. I really appreciate being a part of this team."
Nishioka, 26, will not be in the lineup Monday, when the Twins play the Red Sox in Boston's home park, facing Dice-K Matsuzaka.
Gardenhire said Nishioka is a starting player, and starting players typically play every other game early in the spring. What's more, Gardenhire said Nishioka would get most of his playing time at home, meaning fewer bus trips through the Grapefruit League.
"I know he’s a rookie, but he’s not a rookie; he’s been playing baseball a long time," Gardenhire said. "So I’m going to treat him as a veteran. I’m going to call him a rookie, but I’m going to treat him as a veteran."
Note: Check back here for Monday's starting lineups. Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey will be among those pitching for the Twins.