Nishioka is far, far away, in so many ways

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 1, 2012 - 10:05 AM

Tsuyoshi Nishioka arrived from Japan planning to play Major League Baseball in Minnesota. Now he's not in the majors and not in the state, and there's no sign he's going to be back any time soon.

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. - A batting-practice baseball clanged off the top of the right-field foul pole at Frontier Field last week and ricocheted into the patio area beyond. Moments later, another fly ball arced just inside the pole and likewise carried out of the park. Next pitch, a line drive cleared the right-field wall about 35 feet away and landed in the Red Wings bullpen.

No, it wasn't a Jim Thome display of baseballs hit so hard you feel sorry for them. But considering the identity of the home run slugger, the power performance was as impressive as it was unexpected -- to everyone but the batter, anyway.

"It's fun, but it's just practice. Everyone hits good in practice," said Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the Twins' failed 2011 experiment in Far East relations. "What matters is what you do in the real game."

Don't the Twins know it. Nishioka has done little to impress his employers in real major league games, which is why he is spending 2012 in western New York, with the Twins' Class AAA team, rather than in Target Field. It's hardly what he expected when he signed, with great fanfare, a three-year, $9 million contract (plus $5.3 million posting fee) to give up his status as a star in Japan for a spot in Minnesota's infield, but Nishioka shows no sign of bitterness. He bluntly admits he didn't earn a big-league job -- "not yet," he's quick to add.

"In time, you realize that players like [Justin] Morneau and [Joe] Mauer have gone through this to become who they are now," Nishioka said through an interpreter. "It's OK to have those struggles, because in the long run, in your life, it's important to take difficult situations and make the most out of the opportunities they provide."

That's the Twins' intent, too, in hopes of recouping some value from their investment. A reclamation project is hardly what the Twins thought they were getting after scouting Nishioka with several sets of eyes before bringing him here, but it is what they have nonetheless.

"The player we all saw last year was not the player we scouted in Japan. ... I mean, none of us believed that he wouldn't hit," said Mike Radcliff, Twins senior vice president for player personnel, who spent a week in June watching the Red Wings. "I think he's still going to play in the big leagues. I have a high level of confidence he'll be able to contribute."

Progress is slow, but the Twins say they are being proactive. When Nishioka -- whose broken leg, .226 batting average, little power or speed and flustered defense made 2011 a disaster -- showed little progress during spring training, the Twins turned him over to Rochester manager Gene Glynn (in the field) and hitting coach Tom Brunansky (at the plate) with instructions to do what they could to restore his game, and his confidence.

According to the stats, 2012 so far is no different from 2011; after hitting .165 over the first three weeks of the season, Nishioka was sidelined for nearly a month by a serious ankle sprain. But Brunansky said he expects those numbers -- Nishioka has a slowly rising .234 average -- to change. "He's not the hitter we all saw in spring training," Brunansky said.

After consulting with the organization's other hitting instructors, Brunansky began refining Nishioka's approach, first by emphasizing keeping his head still and his hands back, and eventually by making a more radical change. "One of the biggest differences is, we've eliminated his leg kick. He was using that as a trigger, but if the ball wasn't in the zone right where he wanted it, he would sort of float forward, and his whole balance was off," Brunansky said.

The right fielder on the Twins' 1987 World Series champion team wasn't sure how willing Nishioka would be to overhaul a style that won him a Nippon League batting championship in 2010. But Brunansky has been impressed with his pupil's attitude.

"It's hard for a coach to say to anyone who's had success, 'You've got to change.' I've been on the other side of it. It's not a winning battle. You're not going to effect change until [the player gets] close to rock bottom," Brunansky said. "But it came to the point where he knew his swing wasn't right. ... And he's working hard at it, every day."

Same with his defense at second base, where Nishioka is honest about his problems last season. His 12 errors in 68 games were amplified by confusion over some of the basics, such as relays, cutoffs and footwork, a problem the infielder believes was more mental than physical.

"It's obvious that I was trying to not make the error, thinking about making the right play, and I was probably putting too much effort into that. I probably seemed a little uptight at times," explained Nishioka, who said he works on fielding with Glynn every day. "So I'm trying to be relaxed and get comfortable so it comes naturally."

Nishioka seems anything but uptight when he's around his teammates; even though his mastery of English is still only so-so, the switch-hitting infielder laughs and jokes with his teammates during batting practice. If he is embarrassed by his predicament, it doesn't show.

"Players coming over from another country, a player like Ichiro [Suzuki] could adjust in his first year. But players like myself kind of struggle to do that," Nishioka said. "For some players, from any country, it takes time adjusting to the environment."

The reverse is true, too; Radcliff said the Twins realized that moving from Japanese to American baseball would be a hurdle, but, "I'm not sure we understood the degree of difficulty that would confront him."

The team made a list of all the changes a player would face, from language, culture and diet to the size of the baseball and slickness of the turf, all in hopes of helping to ease Nishioka's transition. That list has more than 100 entries now, Radcliff said -- and that doesn't even include the extra burdens that Nishioka carried.

For instance, the birth of his daughter in September, while he was still an ocean away, and difficulties in his marriage to model Naoko Tokuzawa, who filed for divorce over the winter. Nishioka downplays the turmoil -- "It's not just baseball players that have that problem," he said of being apart from his daughter. "If you're a taxi driver, if you're a truck driver, it comes with your job" -- but the Twins wondered whether it was affecting him.

But nothing destroyed Nishioka's confidence, the Twins believe, like the broken leg he suffered in a second base collision with the Yankees' Nick Swisher just six games into his major league career.

"The broken leg was the biggest factor that sent this thing in the direction it's gone -- spiraling downward, or however you want to put it," Radcliff said.

The Twins hope the spiral has stopped, the direction reversed. Nishioka hopes so, too.

"I feel I'm adjusting more and more to the American way of playing baseball. This is a good city, but I definitely can't be comfortable being here," he said. "I'm working every day in preparation for helping the Twins win games."

  • TWINS DOWN ON THE FARM: A SERIES IN FIVE PARTS

    Part 1: Tsuyoshi Nishioka's season at Class AAA Rochester

    Coming Monday in part two of the series: Class AA New Britain

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