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IWAMURA THRIVING ON STAGE

With postseason experience in Japan, Rays second baseman provides steady presence on base.

Akinori Iwamura was admittedly curious before the postseason began, having never been through it before.

The Rays second baseman said the closest thing to it he experienced was the Japan Series in 2001. He remembered being so nervous he swung at the first pitch, which was up and in.

But like Iwamura has done throughout his seemingly seamless transition from third base to second this season, he has proved cool under pressure in the Rays' playoff run.

In an offense that has delivered a historic home run count, Iwamura has often set the table from the leadoff spot, having picked up hits in eight of his first nine playoff games.

"My confidence level goes up when I face good teams and good pitchers," Iwamura, 29, said through interpreter Bori Uchibori. "And that's what's happening right now."

Iwamura's biggest moment came in Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the White Sox, when he came through with a go-ahead two-run homer in the fifth inning of the Rays' 6-2 victory.

But unlike his career in Japan - he hit 106 home runs in three seasons before signing with the Rays in 2007 - Iwamura has focused on hitting more line drives and ground balls, using his patience at the plate to get on base.

That's exactly what happened in Game 5 of the ALCS against the Red Sox, when Iwamura reached base three times (two walks) in five plate appearances, and scored two runs.

"He's their leadoff hitter, and he's done a great job sparking their offense," Game 5 Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka said. "He's been doing a good job going to the opposite field and hitting some doubles."

"I have not changed my approach at all," Iwamura said. "I try to work the pitch count, and if we work the pitch count as a team, those good starting pitchers will come off the mound, and that's what I'm doing. That's what we're doing right now, and I feel I'm pretty good at it."

As for Iwamura's previous "playoff" situation in the Japan Series, the soft-spoken second baseman pointed out that, after shaking off his early nerves, he ended up hitting .450 with a Series-high nine hits.

But it will be tough to top this year's experience.

"Everything feels so fresh, and I'm glad to be part of it," Iwamura said. "I'm enjoying it right now."

Joe Smith can be reached atjoesmith@sptimes.com

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