Twins may have struck gold with Nishioka

Twins may have struck gold with Nishioka

Twins may have struck gold with Nishioka
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Tsuyoshi Nishioka has plenty of hardware from his playing days in Japan.

He won the Japan Series twice, was named an All-Star five times and won three Gold Gloves, including one last season at shortstop when he also led the league in batting average and on-base percentage, while helping lead the Chiba Lotte Marines to the Japan Series title.

But if you ask Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, he's not shy about saying that Nishioka could add to his total in the Major Leagues as a second baseman.

"He's advertised as a Gold Glove winner, and I'm not going to say it now, but at the end of the day he might have one over here if he plays like he's playing right now," Gardenhire said. "He's got as good as hands as I've seen, and he's quick."

Gardenhire has only seen Nishioka play in 12 Grapefruit League games but he's watched enough of him so far to know he's the real deal at second base. In fact, Nishioka reminds him of a young infielder who played with the Mets in the early 1980s.

"He's like a young Ron Gardenhire," Gardenhire said while trying to keep a straight face. "No, he's just really good. I wish I had hands like that when I played."

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Nishioka, for his part, was simply humbled when told that Gardenhire held him in such high regard after spending only two months with the team.

"It's still early and still Spring Training so I hope to do it when the season starts and when it counts, but I'm happy to put that impression on Gardy," Nishioka said through his translator Ryo Shinkawa. "It's an award I don't have control over and one that Gardy won't either, but I hope that I can make that impression on other teams as well."

Nishioka certainly made that impression in a game against the Rays on Saturday at Hammond Stadium when he made two incredible plays -- one to his left on a hard hit ground ball and another on a grounder up the middle -- that helped right-hander Nick Blackburn get out of a few jams.

"He made some great plays out there," Blackburn said. "It's pretty obvious he has great range, is quick and anticipates well. So it's great for groundball pitches. He covers a lot of ground."

And while Nishioka has already proved his worth defensively, he's also shown he's capable with the bat as well by hitting .324/.361/.441 (BA/OBP/SLG) with five RBIs and four runs over 34 at-bats. He's yet to homer but has two doubles and a triple as well as two stolen bases without getting caught.

It's not exactly a surprise he's impressing at the plate given his success in Japan, Nishioka says he simply feels comfortable adjusting to big league pitching after spending the previous eight seasons in Japan.

"I haven't really noticed that much difference," Nishioka said. "I haven't really thought that much about it at the plate."

But it has been a big change for Nishioka leaving his native Japan without knowing much English and coming to a club without any other Japanese players.

Nishioka, though, has fit in just fine because of his sense of humor and eagerness to interact with his teammates despite the language barrier.

"Believe me, he's laid back," Gardenhire said. "I don't care where you're from, he's laid back. I can watch him and he likes to have fun. It's easy to see. I've been messing around with him recently and he likes it."

So while the regular season is still a few weeks away, Gardenhire is already confident the Twins made the right decision in signing the Japanese star.

"He's a good player and a good guy," Gardenhire said. "The whole package. He's fit in really well."

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.