Iwamura return can't be too soon

The Japanese 3B, who comes back Monday, made the club better in ways beyond stats.

Published May 27, 2007

CHICAGO - The Devil Rays knew they'd miss third baseman Akinori Iwamura when he was sidelined in late April with a strained right oblique muscle, but they weren't sure how much.

With Iwamura set to return Monday, they have a pretty good idea.

And it was a lot.

"I think he had a lot of impact early in the season, and I think he could have a lot of impact coming back," manager Joe Maddon said. "Just by his presence in the batting order, that presents the lineup entirely different. His defense obviously was extremely good, and we missed that.

"And I just think his enthusiasm and the way he plays has been missed, also. Not that we've been deadbeats or anything, but he adds. He adds to the situation. I think he brings a lot."

Iwamura's impact can be measured in different ways. The simplest is this: The Rays were 8-11 (a .421 winning percentage) before he got hurt and, thus far, since he did are 11-17 (.393).

They scored 1 1/2 more runs per game with him in the lineup, hit for a higher average, made fewer errors, stole more bases and just generally played better.

No wonder they're so eager to have him back.

"It'll be great," rightfielder Delmon Young said. "You saw what he did when he was in the lineup. He hits, he plays great defense, he steals bases. There's a different energy to the team. Everyone likes him in the clubhouse, so when you don't see him around, it's weird.

"He's one of those guys that when he gets back in there he'll help the whole lineup like we were before he got hurt."

Iwamura was hitting .339 at the time of his injury, ninth in the American League, with an impressive .479 on-base percentage, which ranked fifth. He had hits in 14 of his 17 starts and scored the tying or winning run in six of the Rays' first eight wins.

"You saw the way he played before he got hurt," said infielder Ty Wigginton, who will shift back to first base and more of a DH role with Iwamura's return. "He was on base all the time. He did all the small things at the plate and on defense even more so."

Iwamura healed more quickly than expected, but the Rays will be cautious and may limit him to DH duties a few times this week. He made only a five-game rehab assignment at the extended spring level (going 6-for-14 with four walks) rather than go to Double A or Triple A, which could make the adjustment to major-league pitching more difficult.

Maddon hadn't made a final decision but was leaning toward keeping Iwamura in the No. 6 spot in the order, seeking to not put too much pressure, or too many expectations, on him. Eventually, Maddon said he may consider Iwamura for the leadoff spot, but for now he just wants him in the lineup as often as possible.

And not just for what he does himself.

"It's not only what he does statistically, but the guy works such great at-bats, and I think he's contagious," Maddon said. "I think when other hitters watch a hitter having good at-bats, it reminds them what they would like to do sometimes. I think Aki really presented that to us early in the season. He worked good at-bats, saw lots of pitches, (got) crucial hits, utilized the whole field, put down a bunt.

"He just played the game really well. He played the game intelligently. I think he's contagious to the rest of the group in a positive way."