Nishioka fits Twins like a glove

With his solid work ethic, obvious talent and good nature, Tsuyoshi Nishioka has quickly gained acceptance among the Twins.

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Second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka has not disappointed the Twins with his performance in his first major league camp. “I think he’s the real deal,” said Bobby Valentine, his former manager in Japan.

Photo: Dave Martin, Associated Press

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FORT MYERS, FLA. - Tsuyoshi Nishioka has been a Twin for roughly three months. Ever since he was first handed a uniform with the No. 1 on it, he's searched for ways to fit in with new teammates in a foreign land.

From that perspective, trying to pick a fight with Venezuelan reliever Jose Mijares during spring training is seen as a sign of progress.

"He called Mijares fat," teammate Brian Duensing said. "Then he apologized and said that Mijares would kill him. Then Nishi said, 'You know, I would just kick you real hard and run. You would never catch me.'"

In English? In Spanish?

"No, he had his translator [Ryo Shinkawa] translate," Duensing said. "But we all laughed."

Nishioka comes to America to, in his words, "grow as a human being" after winning three Gold Glove Awards, one batting title and two championships with the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japanese Pacific League. Spring training has been his orientation period. An infielder once considered flamboyant in Japan is getting used to a new culture -- and a different kind of clubhouse.

Nishioka appreciates how seriously the Twins take their spring training drills; he said Chiba Lotte had similar standards. But he also likes how players enjoy each other off the field.

"It's a team that is very good at 'on and off,'" he said through his interpreter. "In the clubhouse, they are all friends, and they are very good at turning the switch off. But on the field, once they put on the Twins jersey and get on the field, they have the feeling that they want to beat the other team."

But can he play at this level? The Twins have seen nothing this spring to suggest he will not become the everyday second baseman and No. 2 hitter that they envisioned when they signed him during the offseason.

He entered Saturday with a .370 batting average and a 13-game hitting streak.

"He's solid with the glove, and he's proven he can handle the bat really, really well," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's the package deal. He's a really good player, and we're real excited about him, to tell you the truth."

Fitting in

Getting comfortable in the Twins clubhouse has not appeared to be a problem. When a door on Nick Blackburn's stall came off, Kevin Slowey taped "congratulations" in Japanese on it (he's working on the language) and presented it to Nishioka as a gift.

Nishioka is taking English classes and can surprise you when he turns a phrase. When someone says to him, "Ohio," which sounds like the Japanese way of saying, "Good morning," Nishioka replies, "Good morning," perfectly.

And he and Mijares have built an interesting friendship. Mijares was showing him card games on Wednesday, and Nishioka was rubbing Mijares' head and trying to speak Spanish.

"If you just screw around with people, you can find out if they are into that sort of thing or if they are a serious person," Gardenhire said. "Believe me, he's laid back. He likes to have some fun, that's easy to see. I've been messing with him pretty good and he likes it."

There was a time not long ago when Nishioka did much more than fit in.

He broke in with the Marines in 2003. In 2004, he became a switch hitter. In 2005, he was considered the best second baseman in the league. That year he batted .268, stole a league-high 41 bases, committed only two errors, won his first Gold Glove and helped Chiba Lotte win the Japan Series for the first time since 1974.

He was 21 years old. He was about to become a member of Team Japan that won the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006.

And he seemed to enjoy everything about his youthful celebrity status.

"I had him as a baby," said ESPN analyst and former Chiba Lotte manager Bobby Valentine. "I had him when he was playing and learning how to date girls and trying to figure out what being successful was."

Nishioka wore colorful wristbands, let his hair grow out and even tinted it to highlight his uniform. In 2007 he wore his first name on the back of his uniform all season. That didn't go over well with everyone.

"As a young kid he definitely was flashy," Valentine said. "He has settled down a bit. He doesn't mind standing out in a crowd, and in Japan, that's the exception to the rule. He was out in front, and he's out in front because he played with that type of ability at an early age.

"I think he got a little bored at times being as good as he was and not knowing how long he was going to have to stay with that one team."

Nishioka last week finally found a barber he liked and arrived at the ballpark with his black hair nicely trimmed. This was news to the dozen or so Japanese reporters at camp who have to write a Nishioka story each day.

He was asked what happened to the colorful wristbands and the longer, tinted hair.

"When I was young I probably didn't have the confidence," Nishioka said. "I think that led to be being a little different with the looks. But now I feel that I'm getting more and more confidence on the field, and that's how I want to make the fans cheer for me."

Settling down

Nishioka is married now. His wife, Naoko, is a popular model. He carefully answers questions and doesn't come across as the wild and crazy guy he might have once been.

Of course, that's the view from the other side of the language barrier, a barrier that is slowly coming down.

"I'm glad through the years I had him that he started to settle down," Valentine said, "because the 2006 version of Nishioka would not have worked very well with Gardy. I think the 2011 version will fit in quite nicely."

Twins international scout Howard Norsetter first saw Nishioka in 2005. The Twins continued to update their files on him, then really bore down on him once they knew he could be available.

Nishioka has long dreamed of playing in the majors. He revealed on Wednesday that he tried to get Chiba Lotte to post him following the 2009 season, but with three years left on his contract, the team wouldn't.

"So I asked, if I got the batting average [up] and the team wins the championship, could they grant me [the opportunity] to accomplish my dream?" he said.

Nishioka played in all 144 games last season and won the batting title with a .346 average. He and Ichiro Suzuki are the only players in league history to have 200 hits in a season. He captained Chiba Lotte to another Japan Series title. Consequently, he was allowed to leave for MLB. At 26, he was the youngest Japanese player ever to be posted.

The Twins paid $5.3 million for the rights to negotiate with Nishioka, then signed him to a three-year, $9.25 million contract with a $4 million option for 2014.

"He is a gifted athlete," Norsetter said. "We've had him at 3.9 [seconds], 3.95 to first base. This guy has some jets.

"He's got balance and he's got bat speed. He has pitch awareness. He can be a tough out, a pesky out."

Valentine believes Nishioka will be able to hit major league fastballs on the outer half of the plate to the opposite field -- something he said others have struggled to do -- and still pull the breaking ball.

"I think he's the real deal," Valentine said.

When Gardenhire suggested recently that Nishioka was good enough to win a Gold Glove, that excited longtime Japanese baseball writer Hideki Okuda. "He might be the first Japanese player to win a Gold Glove as an infielder," he said.

Spring training games are winding down, with a season's worth of games left to track one of the Twins' many story lines of 2011-- can Nishioka make an impact?

As of now, everyone feels good about what they've seen and how he fits in the batting order. So far, signs point to him being a good fit.

"Guys in this clubhouse are already talking about he might be the guy we needed that's really going to be a catalyst for this team," Slowey said. "So I think we're all hoping for that."

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