ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Early this afternoon, Tsuyoshi Wada will ignore the distractions of an unfamiliar ballpark. He won’t pay any attention to the pork races and may be off the mound by the time the Lehigh Valley IronPigs’ “Dancing Dirt Dudes” have finished dragging the infield in the sixth inning.
This is Wada’s introduction to professional baseball, U.S. style.
With barely four months left in his second regular season, Wada has yet to pitch for the Orioles, who signed him in December 2011 for two years and $8.15 million. It was a coup then. The Orioles are trying to recoup something out of it now.
After a lost 2012 due to Tommy John surgery, Wada is nearly back—or rather nearly in the majors—for the first time.
Sunday will be his third rehab start for the Norfolk Tides. Wada’s first two weren’t awful.
“His first one he scuffled a little bit with his command. The last one he was crisper. I’m expecting him to get better each time out,” Norfolk manager Ron Johnson said.
“I’m excited for the next start.”
Johnson has had experience with rehabbing Japanese pitchers. As Pawtucket manager, he had Daisuke Matsuzaka in his Red Sox rehab. Wada is no problem.
“He deserves the right to go out and get himself rehabbed. He’s earned that,” Johnson said.
Two days before a start, Wada takes a mat outside the clubhouse and stretches. His trainer and translator Seob Yoon are there to help.
Wada’s English has improved dramatically. He charmed Baltimore when he began his introductory press conference by reading a statement in English, saying how excited he was to pitch for the Orioles.
Soon, there should be another one.
Wada’s rehab assignment can last only until June 14, and he can’t be sent to the minors without his consent. The Orioles are eager to see what they have.
“We’re just trying to get him back to where he’s throwing a certain number of pitches,” Johnson said.
Wada says the rehab is going well.
“What I have to do in this rehab assignment is to constantly throw every fifth, every sixth day and to be able to constantly throw six or seven innings in those outings,” he said through Yoon.
“He hasn’t been able to throw in a game like this for a long time since the surgery, so he’s very excited to be able to throw down here during the rehab assignment,” Yoon said.
After Sunday’s start, Wada can get up to three more. He can’t think about that now.
“Going up, it’s a possibility that he’s going to go up in a few weeks, but it’s still a possibility and he wants to concentrate on every game, every pitch down there. He has to show that he’s able to pitch and get the good results here,” Yoon said.
In the majors, the only bus rides are short ones, between hotels, ballparks and airports. In the minors, even in Triple-A, they’re a constant.
“I don’t think it’s tough. I’m actually having fun. It’s a good experience to be able to travel with the team on the bus,” Wada says with a smile.
With Jason Hammel, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Kevin Gausman and Wei-Yin Chen, who’s currently on the disabled list, there may not be room in the rotation for Wada. His major league debut may be in relief.
“It’s not myself that’s going to choose if I’m going to start for the team or not. The manager is going to choose that, so it’s kind of hard to say, but as of now, I’m pitching as a starter. That’s what they expect me to do, so I’ve been working as a starter for now,” Wada said.
Johnson is trying to prepare Wada to start. It’s a possibility the Orioles could need him to.
“As far as what they’re going to do with him afterwards, I don’t concern myself with that. My job is just to get him in ballgames and him get his work in,” Johnson said.
Wada hasn’t faced major league hitters, though some of those in extended spring training, and in Triple-A have major league experience. He’s had lots of time to get adjusted to America and to reflect on 2012, a season to remember for the Orioles, but one to forget for Wada.
“It was tough on me, but I think it was more tough on the team last year. I felt I let the team down last year for not being able to help out the team in any way and right now, I’m doing the rehab assignment and getting closer to getting up there. I really want to work hard on this, and I really want to help out the team in any way I can,” Wada said.