Yabuta fitting in quickly with Royals

Yabuta fitting in quickly with Royals

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Manager Trey Hillman was hitting comeback shots at his pitchers, short rockets to sharpen their fielding reactions. Smack! Yasuhiko Yabuta snagged a one-hop sizzler in his bare hand.

Peals of laughter and whoops of admiration went up from his fellow pitchers. Fortunately, the ball he caught with his throwing hand was made of soft rubber.

"Hoo!" exclaimed Gil Meche. "I just want to see the ball."

Yabuta, the right-handed reliever from Japan, joined in the hearty laughter. Forget the language barrier. Yabuta is fitting right in with the Royals at their spring camp.

Meche grabbed Yabuta as his partner for a run around the field and Hillman noticed something immediately.

"I glanced over there when Gil and Yabu were down the right-field line and there was an attempt there to communicate," Hillman said appreciatively. "That's a big deal."

Yabuta, signed as a setup man, is making his first venture into U.S. baseball after 12 years in Japan. Communication is so essential to the Royals that Shingo Matsubara, a recent graduate of Oklahoma State, was hired to be Yabuta's translator and masseuse.

Matsubara is Yabuta's shadow, bridging the language gap between pitching coach Bob McClure and other players. After a week in the Royals' volunteer early camp, Yabuta seems to have adapted well.

"Everybody talks to me, everybody is nice to me and I have no problems except for the English. Other than that, I'm good," he said through Matsubara.

Soon Japanese trailblazer Hideo Nomo, signed as a non-roster pitcher, will be in camp and should be a help to Yabuta.

"I think so, but I've never met him or talked to him," Yabuta said. "I know him only from TV because when I started to play professionally, he was already here in the Major Leagues."

Hillman, who spent the last five years managing in Japan, has made Yabuta's assimilation into the Royals family a priority.

"The quicker we can get him comfortable and acclimated culturally the better he's going to be out on the field," Hillman said. "I've spoken to people that are not with us who know Yabuta's perception -- other Japanese people -- and the report is that he's enjoying it so far, a smile on his face every day."

McClure is overseer to this cultural metamorphosis. For one thing, he's trying to balance Yabuta's homegrown practice of throwing a lot and often with the more cautious U.S. approach.

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"He's 34, he's pitched for a while so he knows his body, knows what it takes to get prepared for the season. I've asked him over and over again what is too much and he's told me. I'm learning from him how much work he likes to do and I'm trying to see if it makes sense to me," McClure said.

"Is it going to be too much? I don't know yet what is too much. Right now, he's scheduled to throw just like everybody else and we'll see how it goes."

That means a bullpen session every other day. Unless, of course, Yabuta does more.

"What you've got to watch for, really, is not so much that he's throwing every day but how much he's throwing. How many pitches?" McClure said.

Now most Royals are throwing 30-35 pitches a day; Yabuta throws 40-45.

Yabuta was signed away from the Chiba Lotte Marines in an effort to offset the loss to another right-hander, David Riske, to the Milwaukee Brewers. Hillman observed Yabuta's setup work first-hand in Japan.

"I know plenty," Hillman said. "He fills up the strike zone. He's not afraid to pitch inside. He's got one of the best changeups that I've ever witnessed on the field level. He's got a fastball, changeup, slider and a split. And, quite honestly, when I saw him late in the games and when I saw him on TV against other teams, he could win simply by throwing his fastball and locating his changeup."

Catcher Miguel Olivo, after receiving Yabuta's pitches in a couple of sessions, was impressed.

"He's got good stuff. His fastball is pretty hard and he's got a nasty split. I think that's going to be the strikeout pitch for him," Olivo said.

"He's got good enough stuff to get people out, I can tell you that right now," McClure said. "No question about it."

This will be Yabuta's first year in the Major Leagues, so technically, even though he's 34, he could be a candidate for Rookie of the Year.

His translator passed that along and Yabuta laughed at the thought.

"I play every day and I feel like a rookie," he said.

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