LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Just like last year, Kenshin Kawakami faced the Pirates in his first start of spring training on Thursday. He pitched two scoreless innings, just like last year. But so much has changed for the 34-year-old right-hander entering his second season with the Braves.
Kawakami, who is in the second year of a three-year $23 million contract, can relax this time around.
He can treat spring training the way veteran pitchers who are secure in their jobs do – work on some pitches and prepare for the upcoming season.
“Last year when I faced Pittsburgh, I was looking at every spring training game as if it was a regular season game,” Kawakami said through an interpreter. “…There was a lot of pressure on me because I was new to the team, new to the States, new to Major League Baseball. There was a lot of pressure to show what kind of stuff I have, what will work over here. After a year where players are comfortable seeing what I have, even the fans are comfortable seeing what I have, I can try things out much more.”
His focus right now is working on his two-seam fastball. Kawakami, who went 7-12 last season with a 3.86 ERA without the benefit of much run support, started throwing more sinkers after the All-Star break last year. He said he decided to make the change after watching the success Derek Lowe had with his sinker.
“He plays baseball where he trusts the defense and gets quick, easy outs,” said Kawakami.
The outs looked easy for Kawakami on Thursday. He gave up only single to former Brave Ryan Church on a groundball through to right field in two scoreless innings of the Braves’ 4-2 win over the Pirates. He used his two-seamer to coax a double-play ball from Jeff Clement and negate Church’s leadoff single.
Kawakami came back with another two-seam fastball to strike out Pedro Alvarez looking to end the second inning. He threw 17 pitches overall, including 12 for strikes.
Braves manager Bobby Cox liked the look of Kawakami’s sinker.
”It sunk like crazy, it was very, very good,” Cox said. “He threw a lot of strikes with it. He had it going really well.”
Kawakami said the two-seamer is much easier for him to locate to left-handed hitters like Alvarez. He’s still working on command to right-handed hitters. Kawakami hit Reds pitcher Micah Owings, a right-hander, in the helmet last year with a two-seam fastball that he lost his grip on; Owings had to have stitches.
“That was what made me try to study the two-seamer a lot more and not let that happen again,” Kawakami said. “Try to improve on it.”
He’s got time to do that now.