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THE HOT CORNER: Iwamura: Tampa Bay confidential

by Jim Allen (Feb 12, 2009)

Moving to second base after a lifetime spent at third could have been a gut-wrenching decision, but Akinori Iwamura made short work of it.

"Some time in September [2007] the manager came to me and said, 'We'd love to have you play second base next year if you want to give it a try,'" Iwamura told The Hot Corner last week on how Tampa Bay skipper Joe Madden broached the subject.

"I was thinking it over, when he asked me if I wanted to play a game there and try it out. So I started the last game of the season, in Toronto, at second. Afterward he asked me what I thought.

"I said, 'Yeah, I can do this.'"

When Tampa Bay posted the winning bid for Iwamura, it had second base in mind even though he had spent almost no time there.

"I played it a little in junior high, but as a pro, I was there just a few games in the minors," he said.

Ranked by Bill James' Win Shares as the fourth most valuable second baseman in the American League in 2008, Iwamura believes he got the job done defensively.

"[Boston's Dustin] Pedroia won the Golden Glove, but there wasn't much of a gap between us."

And that's coming from a guy whose Central League career was delayed due to frequent errors at third base for the Yakult Swallows' farm team.

Iwamura, who as an 18-year-old in 1997 had a .407 on-base percentage in the Eastern League with 12 triples and 10 homers in 256 at-bats, could have made the transition to the CL the next season if it hadn't been for his fielding. Drafted out of Ehime Prefecture's Uwajima Higashi High School in the second round, Iwamura made 22 errors in the EL as a rookie for an abysmal .848 fielding percentage, while turning just nine double plays.

Left in the minors in 1998, Iwamura showed some improvement with both the bat and the glove, although his .907 fielding percentage was still worst among regular EL third basemen.

In 1999, his first real CL season, Iwamura was the worst third baseman in the league but was rapidly improving, In 2000, he broke through with a Golden Glove as the best of a mediocre field.

The confidence gained by winning the first time put his defensive career into overdrive. Although he never made anyone forget Shigeo Nagashima's work at the hot corner, Iwamura got better with each season and ended up with five Golden Glove Awards before trying his luck in the majors.

Still, there was no indication he'd be able to handle second base, other than the Rays' belief and his own unshakable confidence.

"I thought, this is something I should be able to do, and I could," Iwamura said. "As I found my feet and turned more and more double plays, my confidence only increased. That said, second is not the kind of position that you're going to become good at in one year.

"Still, it was a compliment that people thought I could play in the middle of the infield and be a Gold Glove candidate."

Not only did Iwamura prove to be a quality second baseman, the Rays proved to be a quality team in 2008 by winning their division and their league after years in purgatory.

Iwamura said not much had surprised him in the majors, having been briefed by a pair of former major league pitchers on the Swallows.

"I listened to what Kazuhisa Ishii and [Shingo] Takatsu had to say, and essentially they said that since Tampa Bay wasn't really like a major league team, there wouldn't be much pressure," Iwamura said. "But you know, we played major league opponents and we in fact were a major league team, and then last season...

"I'm extremely happy to have been able to go to a team like that."

Although he'd spoken in the past of his desire for shorter pregame workouts, the extremely brief major league practices--sometimes even without BP--took some getting used to.

"You have to be able to switch it on and off: Work when you need to work, and rest when you need to rest. Sometimes, your first swing is in the game," he said.

"I actually like that. It keeps you from thinking too much. You just go up there and hit.

"There's a lot less wasted motion."


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