Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — The Maserati and suburban mansion were nice, but now Braves pitcher Kenshin Kawakami has something to really raise the comfort level.
A Japanese teammate.
The Braves signed free-agent reliever Takashi Saito in December, and now have two Japanese pitchers, each with his own interpreter. Four countrymen in the clubhouse.
“In terms of having more Japanese people to speak with, it does make me feel comfortable,” Kawakami said through his familiar interpreter, Daichi Takasue.
Kawakami spent the offseason in Japan and hired someone to make regular visits to his house in Gwinnett County – an estate formerly owned by rapper Bow Wow. The pitcher had the person check in to make sure the sleek sportscar he bought last year was safe.
“Yes, he was worried about his car,” Takasue said, smiling.
Kawakami worked in the offseason to improve his two-seam (sinking) fastball, and strengthened a pitching shoulder that became fatigued at times last season.
He went 7-12 despite a respectable 3.86 ERA as a 33-year-old major league rookie in 2009, after a long career in Japan. He was 7-10 with a 3.97 ERA in 25 starts before moving to the bullpen when Tim Hudson came off the disabled list.
Kawakami is back in the rotation, and Braves manager Bobby Cox said it’s only natural that the right-hander feels more comfortable in his second season in the United States.
“It’d be just like me going over there [to Japan] to manage,” Cox said. “I’d have to get to know everything. It would take a year to get settled in. But he did last year. First year over here, right from the get-go I thought he did fine.”
Kawakami impressed teammates and Braves officials with his outings against high-profile opponents, including eight shutout innings in a win against Toronto and Roy Halladay, who’s now with Philadelphia.
“He beat all the best pitchers that he faced last year,” Cox said. “He absolutely belongs in a major league rotation. Whether he could win in the teens depends on how many runs we get him. He gives you a good ballgame every time out, a chance to win.
“I was impressed with him last year, very much. He’s a competitor – big time.”
After starting out 1-3 with a 7.06 ERA in four April games, Kawakami posted a 3.42 ERA in his final 21 starts. His 6-7 record in the latter stretch was largely due to poor run support, as the Braves scored one or no runs while he was in 10 of the 21 stats.
“Last year I did some good things and bad things,” Kawakami said. “This year I just want everything to be good. With Saito, I think everything will be more comfortable.”