JUPITER, Fla. -Koji Uehara emerged slowly from the Orioles' dugout, walking past a group of Japanese photographers on his way to the mound. When he arrived there, he circled the mound, stopped to pick up the rosin bag and stepped up to the pitching rubber.
He calmly threw a few warm-up tosses to catcher Gregg Zaun before signaling that he was ready. At 1:20 yesterday afternoon, Uehara fired his first pitch, a fastball to Florida Marlins outfielder John Raynor that was called a strike.
It was the start of a successful day for the Orioles' first Japanese player, who threw two scoreless innings in facing opposing major league hitters for the first time.
"All I felt was joy," Uehara said through his translator, Jiwon Bang. "I enjoyed it. To be able to stand on that mound was joyful."
For one day, Uehara was everything the Orioles hoped he would be when they signed him to a two-year, $10 million deal in January. Limiting himself to fastballs and forkballs, Uehara threw strikes on 22 of his 32 pitches. He walked Marlins veteran Jorge Cantu, but that came after a 10-pitch at-bat during which Cantu fouled off several offerings before taking a close pitch inside.
The one hit Uehara gave up was Cody Ross' blooper that left fielder Luke Scott lost in the sun. With men on first and second and no outs, Uehara sandwiched strikeouts of Gaby Sanchez and Alejandro De Aza around a lineout by Robert Andino. Uehara struck out three of the eight batters he faced.
"We gave him a four-out inning, and he didn't blink at all," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "He seems to be able to throw his fastball where he wants it, when he wants it. It's like that's an automatic pitch for him. He's pretty tunneled. He doesn't get wrapped up in all this attention. ... He's pitched in a lot of big games. Lord knows, this thing today was just elementary school for him. This was nothing."
Uehara, a 33-year-old right-hander who spent 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's version of the New York Yankees, said he wasn't nervous. He went through his pre-game routine, jogging up and down the warning track while his teammates were stretching. His teammates mostly left him alone in the dugout, though they noticed that the pitcher's demeanor never changed.
"The guy is ice cold," said Zaun, maintaining that he noticed no nerves with the pitcher, who won Japan's version of the Cy Young Award twice. "I expected him to have good command, but I also saw a bit of the competitive fire in him. He gave up that line-drive out to [John] Baker, and the next pitch he reared back and he cut it loose. You could see there was some fire there. He wasn't really happy with giving up that hard-hit ball. We were all kind of giggling about it in the dugout. He's definitely a competitor. He's out there to win and to pitch well."
Uehara threw just fastballs and forkballs because he wanted to work on polishing those pitches. Uehara, who was watched by about 25 members of the Japanese media, said the day went "as planned," but he needs to work on his control of both pitches. He also said he'll throw all his pitches in his next outing.
"I think Koji knows that the fastball and the splitter are the pitches that are going to carry him all year long, so he needs to get those where he wants them and then he'll worry about the other ones," Zaun said.
The veteran catcher acknowledged that he and Uehara had a miscommunication on one pitch, but they worked it out after the inning. That has been the routine since camp began, as Uehara has impressed his teammates with his sense of humor and his desire to learn a new language and culture.
There has been a Japanese word of the day posted in the Orioles' clubhouse every morning, and reliever Jamie Walker has taken it upon himself to teach Uehara a new English word every day. Uehara also has pictures of his teammates posted in his locker, and he frequently looks at them when an Oriole walks by him in the clubhouse.
While the off-the-field transition has seemingly gone well, the Orioles are even more pleased by Uehara's work on the mound. He'll probably occupy the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind ace Jeremy Guthrie. It is a lot to ask of a pitcher who has thrown only 62 and 89 2/3 innings in his previous two seasons in Japan. However, Uehara has handled every challenge presented so far.
"Everything about him has been first class," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said.