Iwamura advancing one hurdle at a time

The Rays rookie from Japan aims to ensure his first abdominal injury is his last.

Published May 22, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Akinori Iwamura had already started swinging when the person tossing baseballs to him from a few feet away pulled a fast one and held onto the ball. Instinctively, Iwamura checked his swing, pulled the bat back and made a face.

The good news: It was not a grimace.

The twisting motion of swinging a bat is what caused Iwamura's painful abdominal injury a month ago, but his recent look of annoyance at the Devil Rays rehab supervisor who tricked him was a positive sign: His strained right oblique muscle is healing.

Slowly, surely.

"It feels better, " Iwamura said through an interpreter. "No pain."

A few minutes later, the Japanese-born Iwamura sat in the locker room at the Naimoli Complex with a thick bag of ice taped to his midsection, the cold numbing his flesh and the labored nature of the rehabilitation numbing his mind.

Not that long ago, everything about Iwamura's first major-league season was white hot, but the fast start was abruptly interrupted by the muscle strain that occurred during an April 23 at-bat against the Yankees. Though he is ahead of schedule in his recovery, Iwamura remains on the 15-day disabled list and likely will need at least two weeks before he is ready to resume playing third base for the Rays.

Tricky things, ab muscles.

"Whatever my body will do, I want to improve the volume of the workload and the intensity of the workload so I can play as soon as possible, " said Iwamura, 28. "It's probably slow-paced, but at the same time I want to make sure the injury is healing well."

Though most people refer to them simply as abs, the abdominal consists of four muscles: the Rectus abdominis, the Transversus abdominis and a pair of obliques, one on each side. The obliques consist of two pairs of muscles, the external and internal obliques. Together, the obliques cross diagonally near the side of the midsection and are responsible for side-bending and waist-twisting movements.

Think swinging a bat.

Or sneezing.

Or laughing.

Largely taken for granted, abdominal muscles play a role in almost everything you do, from turning a steering wheel to running a comb through your hair.

Strain an oblique and you'll understand.

One day, Iwamura was a spark in the middle of the lineup, hitting .339 with one home run, one triple, two doubles, five RBIs and 15 runs scored. The next, he needed help to get out of a chair.

"That day it happened, or the next day even, just brushing my teeth or gargling was bothering me, " said Iwamura, who had never before injured his abdominal muscles. "For about four days I didn't do anything exercise-wise. And the first exercise was walking. Walking and not feeling any pain, that was the first step."

Iwamura went through several forms of treatment - heat, ultrasound, electric current and ice - to help the muscle heal. Over a span of two weeks, he graduated from walking to jogging, to throwing and fielding ground balls. On Thursday, he swung a bat for the first time, but only in a controlled manner to hit balls off a tee.

This week, he hopes to play in extended spring training games at the Naimoli Complex, his first full-speed game action, without setback. Next would be a rehab stint with a minor-league team. To rejoin the big-league club, Iwamura must be able to play at full speed, including random stops and starts, without worry.

He cannot wait.

"I'm so bored, " he said.

Joanne Korth can be reached at korth@sptimes.com or 727 893-8810.