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Rays' Iwamura shows power at opportune time

ST. PETERSBURG — Somewhere in Tokyo, they are cheering still.

Somewhere in Ehime, they are talking about home runs and big games, about hometown heroes and exported athletes.

All across Japan, where his familiar name dominates the evening papers and is sprinkled across the television news, they are talking about the universal language that a bat makes when it crushes a baseball and turns around a game.

Today, you can only imagine the excitement in the name of a quiet, overlooked second baseman named Akinori Iwamura.

Just a guess, but over there, it probably sounds a lot like it sounds over here — loud and boisterous and unrestrained. How it smells, of course, is like blood in the water after Iwamura's two-run homer lifted the Rays to a 6-2 victory that left Tampa Bay one game away from the AL Championship Series.

Say this much for Aki. For a guy who doesn't hit a lot of home runs these days, he seemed to remember how to trot around the bases just fine. How to tip his cap to the crowd, too.

Even for an understated player such as Iwamura, it is hard to overstate just how big his fifth-inning home run was Friday night. At the time, the Rays trailed only 2-1, but somehow, the deficit felt larger. The White Sox were on the bases long enough to apply for homestead exemptions, and the Rays had to keep scrambling to avoid big innings.

That's the thing about these Rays, however. They play baseball like a game of Clue.

This time, the killer was Aki in the fifth with a baseball bat. Who knew?

Coming into the game, Iwamura had hit only one home run in his previous 322 at-bats. He had hit only six all year, and only one of them had come against a left-handed pitcher.

And yet, here he was, spanking a 1-and-1 slider 392 feet to the opposite field to give the Rays a 3-2 lead and send them on their way.

"Tonight, I was very fortunate to hit the ball," Iwamura, 29, said through an interpreter, "and it went away."

Soon, the White Sox will do the same. If you are interested, the Japanese word of the day is "Ote."

It means "One game to go."

Perhaps none of this should surprise you, by the way. Back in Japan, no one ever accused Iwamura of either Punch or Judy. Back home, he was known as a bit of a power hitter, and anyone who saw him play with the Yakult Swallows will lift an eyebrow to hear that he knocked one over the wall. Iwamura hit 44 home runs in his last season in Japan, 106 in his last three.

"I've watched his home runs on YouTube," said Rays teammate Jason Bartlett. "They're no joke."

Over here, however, the bigger parks have caused Iwamura to flatten his swing, and the home runs have become more scarce. For Iwamura, it was just one more adjustment along the way. After all, this is the guy who moved from third base to second as if he had been playing in the wrong spot all of these years and was simply waiting for someone to notice.

Say this, too. For a guy who doesn't hit a lot of long balls, Iwamura seems to have a knack for hitting them in the big moments. Remember his Sept. 15 home run against the Red Sox's Daisuke Matsuzaka? Remember his eighth-inning shot against the Red Sox's Clay Buchholz on April 26? This one was better.

"It was a good pitch, obviously it wasn't good enough," White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle said. "He's one of those guys who seems like he's bailing out of the box, and it doesn't seem like he can hit that outside pitch. But he does."

Oh, few of us can imagine how big this news will be in Japan. There are representatives from some 30 Japanese outlets, including 20 or so newspapers that are here to cover Iwamura's exploits. It was likely to be a front page story in the papers and a lead on the networks.

Here? Here, Iwamura may be the most overlooked player on the Rays. Here, the talk is usually about the pitchers, or Evan Longoria, or Carlos Pena, or Carl Crawford, occasionally Bartlett. But Iwamura, a quiet man who speaks in a foreign language, seems often to go about his work in solitude.

"To me, he's the most overlooked guy we have," reliever J.P. Howell said. "I think he's our MVP. I really do. He's a gold glover at second, and he's got that steady bat. He's saved me about 20 runs this year with his defense. He's just one of those players whose focus is greater the bigger the game is."

Somewhere in Tokyo, where he played for the Swallows, baseball fans knew that already. Throw the guy into a big game, and yeah, he's going to make you notice him. Somewhere in Ehime, his birthplace, they are talking about him today.

"Ote," they probably are saying.

Even here, you have to admit the word has a nice sound to it, doesn't it?

>>FAST FACTS

Rare power surge

Akinori Iwamura's seven home runs this season:

Date Opp. Result

April 26 Red Sox 2-1 W

May 3 Red Sox 12-4 W

May 15 Yankees 5-2 W

June 3 Red Sox 7-4 L

June 24 Marlins 6-4 W

Sept. 15 Red Sox 13-5 L

Friday White Sox 6-2 W

Rays' Iwamura shows power at opportune time 10/04/08 [Last modified: Saturday, October 4, 2008 11:42am]
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