Munenori Kawasaki is in his first spring training with the Mariners, but already has found a partner in style of play and expression in fellow infielder Brendan Ryan.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Things are tranquil on a sunny Arizona morning until a machine sends an automated pop fly toward some Mariners infielders during a drill.
All of a sudden, the peaceful environment is shattered by a screamed “I got it! Got it! Got it!” in somewhat mimicked English that echoes throughout the Peoria Sports Complex and draws plenty of chuckles. The voice seems several decibels louder than anyone else doing the same drill and belongs to Munenori Kawasaki, the free agent Japanese infielder and nonroster invitee to Mariners camp, who parks himself underneath the pop up and makes the catch.
“You think he’s got it?” one observer quips.
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All of a sudden, the Mariners find themselves with not one, but two constantly-chirping voices. The Mariners had just gotten used to shortstop Brendan Ryan bouncing about like a human ball of energy when his cosmic Japanese twin decided to appear.
“It’s funny to watch people react to how I see myself,” Ryan said, in reference to teammates who burst into fits of laughter the many times Kawasaki lets fly with some mixed Japanese-Anglo verbiage. “It’s a weird, third-person type of feel. I don’t know how to describe that. It kind of makes you think.”
In fewer than two weeks, Kawasaki, 30, has gone from an unknown import quantity to an ingrained part of a team that could very well need his services more than expected. Ryan only began throwing long-toss from a distance of 60 feet on Wednesday as he returns off an upper back and neck injury that derailed his second half last season.
The Mariners hope that the fact Ryan can still swing a bat and participate in non-throwing drills means he won’t be set back too much as he tries to ready for an early start to the season. But in the event he needs more time, the sight of he and Kawasaki looking like clones has to bring the Mariners some relief.
Kawasaki and Ryan seem to feed off each other, engaging in an amusing display of one-upmanship as to who can pound their glove the most enthusiastically before taking routine ground balls, or try to talk their fly balls most convincingly over the fence during a round of batting practice.
“Obviously, he’s very energetic as well,” Kawasaki said, through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “He’s very close to how I play. And that makes it very comfortable for me to play here with him. You look at his plays and the way he moves and he’s great. He’s got a lot of talent.”
The Mariners knew that much about Ryan when it came to his glove. But they weren’t sure what to expect with Kawasaki, the longtime Japanese shortstop who came up as a third baseman and also played some second base.
Mariners infield coach Robby Thompson watched Kawasaki do a double-play pivot at second for the first time Wednesday after taking a throw from third base.
“I was real impressed by where he was at,” Thompson said. “He’s got good feet, good hands. He’s athletic. It didn’t surprise me. But I didn’t think he was going to be that good at the pivot today, it being his first time.”
Thompson said Ryan shouldn’t need much time to get back up to speed once he resumes throwing, but the important part is to make sure he’s healthy. He added that “it’s a treat” having two players like Ryan and Kawasaki on the field at the same time.
“He’s already fit in,” Thompson said of Kawasaki. “Whether it be the language, or whatever, he’s really become a clubhouse sensation. He’s just so outgoing and full of life and energy. He loves being at the ballpark and being out on the field. He knows he has a great opportunity here and it looks like he’s going to make the best of it.”
Thompson planned to head to the bookstore after Wednesday’s workout to buy a book of Japanese-English phrases. Up to now, Kawasaki has relied heavily on interpreter Suzuki to figure out what’s happening on the field.
“I think he’s trying to learn a word a day,” Ryan said. “That’s still better than me. I haven’t even touched my Rosetta Stone yet.”
The team’s Latin American players have been teaching Kawasaki some Spanish words and phrases — not all of them suitable for a family newspaper. He’ll casually shout them out during drills.
Kawasaki admits it can be somewhat difficult to understand everything that’s happening on the field. He said he intentionally arrived in camp well ahead of his mandatory reporting date so he could get to know his fellow teammates and integrate more easily into the group.
“I’m just being natural, just being myself to start off with,” he said.
• Former Mariners closer David Aardsma agreed to a one-year, $500,000, incentive-laden contract with the New York Yankees on Wednesday. The deal contains a $500,000 option for 2013 as well.
Aardsma didn’t pitch for Seattle in 2011 and won’t begin throwing again until July after undergoing Tommy John ligament transplant surgery in his right elbow last summer. Aardsma said he’ll miss Seattle and appreciates the Mariners giving him a chance to become a closer in 2009 and 2010, but he could not pass up a chance at a major league deal.
“The way this deal is structured, if I don’t pitch, it doesn’t really cost them anything,” he said. “But if I do get back out there, I have the chance to make some pretty good money for me and my family. So, it’s a win-win situation.”
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @gbakermariners.