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Iwakuma determined to help Eagles soar in Sendai

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Hisashi Iwakuma started playing baseball as an elementary school first grader at the age of 6, by throwing a ball against a wall in a game of catch with himself and dreaming of becoming a professional. Now, at age 24, he is arguably the best pitcher in Japanese pro baseball.

Iwakuma will be aiming for a third consecutive season with 15 or more wins, as he gets set to throw the first pitch in the history of his new team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, on Opening Day 2005 against the Chiba Lotte Marines on March 26.

Iwakuma left his former team, the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, after that club merged with the Orix BlueWave last autumn. His transfer from the Orix Buffaloes to Rakuten came after a controversial tug-of-war that began after the pitcher made it clear he did not want to play for the Kansai-based combined team and had his sights set on Sendai, the home city of the expansion Eagles.

He is not sure what will be in store for him during the 2005 season but knows it will be exciting with the new team and city and without the chaotic events of 2004, when Japanese baseball went through its most serious crisis, and Iwakuma left his team for three weeks in August to represent Japan at the Summer Olympics in Athens.

Asked his reaction to the Kintetsu-Orix merger plan news that broke on June 13, 2004, Iwakuma said, “I was totally shocked. My teammates and I had no idea that was coming.”

The announcement led to four months of confusion with speculation there would be more team mergers and a shift from a two-league to a one-league system in Japan baseball.

It ended after a two-day players strike in September and agreement to preserve the six-team Pacific League by allowing the Buffaloes-BlueWave merger to proceed, but replacing the team lost through the merger with the expansion team in Sendai.

Iwakuma was protected by Orix in a November dispersal draft but immediately expressed his desire to leave for Rakuten, saying he did not want to play for the Kintetsu-Orix owners because of what they did.

Marty Kuehnert, the Golden Eagles general manager, says, “Getting Iwakuma was like receiving a gift from heaven,” and it will be interesting to see how such a fine pitcher will prevail as the ace of Japan’s first expansion club in more than 50 years.

As good as he is, you would think Iwakuma had been a No. 1 draft selection but, actually, he was chosen No. 5 by the Buffaloes in 1999, out of Tokyo’s Horikoshi High School, meaning he was passed up at least four times by all the other Central and Pacific League teams.

He first showed flashes of brilliance during the 2002 season. It was his third year with Kintetsu and, though he posted only an 8-7 record with a 3.69 ERA, he pitched some great games and attracted the attention of then-Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara, who selected Iwakuma to participate as a member of the All-Japan team against a visiting Major League All-Star contingent that autumn.

Critics wondered why a young pitcher with a performance barely above the .500 mark was picked to play against the big leaguers, but Hara must have had foresight in judging the youngster’s talent, as Iwakuma went on to win 30 games the next two years, going 15-10 in 2003 and 15-2 last season.

Asked how many games he expects to win this year, Iwakuma said, “My goal is to score at least 15 victories again this season,” but that winning as many as 21 (to match his uniform number) “would not be out of the question.”

Last year, he figures he missed four starts while away at the Olympics, an experience he says was “awesome,” despite the fact Japan finished a disappointing third with a bronze medal.

“But missing those games does not mean I would have won 19,” he admits modestly. “I might have lost or got a no-decision in any of those.”

As for his feelings about playing for Rakuten, he says, “I am very happy to be playing for the Eagles and excited for the fans in Sendai. It should be a great and fun season.”

As a Tokyo native, he has no particular ties to Sendai or Kansai, but his father-in-law, Koju Hirohashi, a former Seibu Lions player, is on the Rakuten coaching staff.

Iwakuma also is excited about the inauguration of interleague play, saying, “It is something very timely and good for Japanese baseball.”

Asked if there were any Central League batters he is looking forward to facing — or not facing — he smiled and singled out slugger Tuffy Rhodes of the Tokyo Giants, the 2004 CL home run champion.

“He was my teammate and friend with Kintetsu, so I am looking forward to pitching against him when we play the Giants,” Iwakuma said.

He won’t have to wait long.

The Eagles begin the interleague season with a three-game home series on May 6-8 vs. Rhodes and the Giants.

Coincidentally, a Yomiuri-Rakuten series closes the interleague portion of the schedule June 14-16 at Tokyo Dome.

Looking to the future, Iwakuma said he might like to someday try pitching in the majors, but is not thinking about that now.

He does follow Major League Baseball on TV and roots for the Japanese players in North America, especially former Buffaloes stars such as Hideo Nomo, Akinori Otsuka and the latest, Norihiro Nakamura of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a Kintetsu mate last year.

For the time being Iwakuma is concentrating on 2005 and the Rakuten Eagles. He says he will be honored if chosen to be the starting pitcher, as expected, at both the season opener at Chiba Marine Stadium and the home lidlifter at Sendai’s Fullcast Miyagi Stadium against the Seibu Lions on Friday night, April 1.

“I will be excited but do not expect to be nervous at the start of the (March 26) game. I am more concerned about the end of the game. I just want to win,” he said.