Braves' new Japanese star defeats Nats

Braves' new Japanese star defeats Nats

ATLANTA -- During the news conference that followed his signing with the Braves in January, Kenshin Kawakami said that he's a pitcher that puts his soul into all of his pitches. In essence, he was confirming the scouting reports that indicated that he often shows great passion while pitching in big game situations.

Over the course of the next three seasons, the Braves are hoping to see Kawakami pitch in games with much greater magnitude. But for now, they're simply excited about how he performed while making his Major League debut amid chilly temperatures, similar to the ones he might experience in those future October games that would certainly be deemed more important.

"For his first outing in the United States, he was outstanding," manager Bobby Cox said after Kawakami successfully introduced himself to the Majors by helping the Braves claim a 5-3 win over the Nationals at Turner Field on Saturday night.

While becoming the first Japanese player to appear in a game with the Braves, Kawakami experienced some early excitement that affected his control. But the 33-year-old right-hander appeared poised throughout most of a six-inning effort that included eight strikeouts and four walks. The three runs he surrendered came as a result of consecutive two-out walks in the first inning and Ryan Zimmerman's third-inning, opposite-field, two-run homer.

"He showed composure all night," Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "Even when he allowed the homer to Zimmerman, he came back and was tough. That's really all you can ask for in his first outing in the States. It was a total success."

With assistance from Kelly Johnson, Kawakami was able to exit the momentous occasion with his first Major League win. Through his translator, he said this victory felt nearly as important as the first of the 112 he'd notched during his 13-year career in Japan's Central League.

"I haven't felt this good in a while," Kawakami said through his translator.

Johnson, who ended Friday night's 10-inning rain-delayed game with an RBI single, aided Kawakami with a third-inning leadoff homer. He also hit a two-run double in the decisive three-run fourth inning that was capped with Chipper Jones' two-out RBI single off Nationals starter John Lannan.

Cox placed Johnson in the leadoff role to start the season, and the second baseman has responded by continuing to hit like he did during the final month of the 2008 season. He's hit .364 with two doubles and two homers through his first 22 at-bats this season.

More impressive is the fact that he has batted .392 in the 120 at-bats that he's compiled dating back to Sept. 1.

"I'm just trying to stay aggressive and it doesn't hurt that I've been seeing the ball well the past couple of days," Johnson said. "I'm just getting some pitches to hit and not missing them."

After Kawakami exited, Cox proved his confidence in Peter Moylan by allowing him to protect a one-run lead with a perfect seventh inning that included three strikeouts. Unlike in his previous two appearances, when he didn't retire any of the five batters he faced, the sidearming reliever was able to generate the same kind of movement that was present with the pitches he'd thrown before undergoing Tommy John elbow ligament transplant surgery last year.

"Our bullpen looked excellent tonight," Cox said. "We got them back out there. They made some adjustments and looked terrific."

Instead of watching his bullpen falter like it had during the previous two games, Cox saw Rafael Soriano pitch around a leadoff double to produce a scoreless eighth and give Mike Gonzalez the opportunity to notch the save that eluded him when he blew his first opportunity of the season on Friday.

With Gonzalez's perfect ninth inning, Kawakami could fully savor a debut that included some mistakes primarily trumped by his ability to skillfully escape jams. After retiring the first two batters that he faced, the Japanese hurler issued a pair of walks in front of a Nick Johnson RBI single that gave the Nationals an early lead.

Zimmerman's opposite-field homer extended that lead to three runs, and it appeared Kawakami might be facing more damage when he walked two of the first three batters he faced in the fourth inning. But he responded in confident fashion by retiring the final eight batters that he faced.

"He looked extremely confident on the mound," Cox said. "He shows really a competitive spirit on the mound. I like him."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.