Player: Akinori Iwamura
Born: February 9th, 1979 (Currently 35 Years Old)
Positions: 2B, 3B, and DH
Drafted: Posted in November of 2006 // Drafted by the Yakult Swallows out of Uwajima Higashi during the 1997 Draft
Start of Tenure: Signed as an International Free Agent on December 15th, 2006
End of Tenure: On November 3rd, 2009 was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Jesse Chavez
Retired: Currently playing for the Yakult Swallows in the Japan Central League (1998-?). A career span of 17 years
Rays Stat Line: 6.5 WAR, .281 AVG, .354 OBP, .747 OPS, 14 HR, 104 RBI, and 29 SB
Japanese Career and Being Posted
Akinori Iwamura was drafted in 1997 by the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of the Japanese Central League in Nippon Professional Baseball. He would make his debut a year later in 1998 at the age of 19. Iwamura only played in 1 game, however, and went 0-3 with 2 strike outs.
In 1999, Iwamura was the back up at third base for Takahiro Ikeyama, but as Aki began to produce, he gained the starting job. He finished the year slashing .294/.338/.500 with 11 HR and 35 RBI in 83 games. Iwamura also represented Japan on the national team alongside future big leaguers Hiroki Kuroda in the 1999 Intercontinental Cup. Iwamura had great performance for Japan and was named to the Intercontinental Cup's All Star team.
Iwamura became the Swallows' full time 3B for the 2000 season and awarded the team with a great performance. He played in 130 games, had 18 HR, 116 RBI, and slashed .278/.336/.472. Iwamura was also impressive with his glove at the hot corner, earning the Gold Glove award.
In 2001, Iwamura put in another productive season for the Swallows, earning another Gold Glove and also was selected to be in the NPB Allstar Game. He finished 2001 with 18 HR, 81 RBI, and slashed .287/.326/.452 in 136 games. Iwamura also led the Yakult Swallows to victory in the Japan Series against the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, batting .450 in the 5 game series.
In 2002, Iwamura's production continued to improve, as he earned his 3rd Gold Glove award in a row. In 140 games, Iwamura had 23 HR, 71 RBI, and slashed .320/.386/.531. The next season, Iwamura injured his wrist as a result off an offseason workout and missed most of the year. However, Iwamura was still able to have 12 HR and 35 RBI, and slashed .263/.325/.461 in 60 games. 2003 was his only season without a Japanese Gold Glove award from 2000-2006.
In 2004, Iwamura returned fully healthy and would put up the best numbers of his career enroute to another All-Star Game selection and a 4th Gold Glove. Iwamura posted a career best 44 HR, 103 RBI, and slashed .300/.381/.583/.964 in 138 games. Iwamura also set a new Japanese Central League record for strikeouts in a season, with 173. He later played in the Japan All-Star series against players from the MLB, where Iwamura met Carl Crawford for the first time, and exchanged jerseys with him.
In 2005, Iwamura improved his average and cut his strikeouts down, but while also bringing down his HR totals. Iwamura finished the season with 30 HR, 102 RBI, and slashed .319/.388/.555 in 144 games. Iwamura was again named a NPB Allstar and awarded his 5th Gold Glove.
In 2006, Iwamura started the season by playing for Japan in the World Baseball Classic, where he split 3B duties with Toshiaki Imae. Iwamura played well for Japan, who eventually would win the Classic. During the season, Iwamura again put up solid numbers with 32 HR, 77 RBI, and slashed .311/.388/.544 in 145 games. Iwamura also won his 6th Gold Glove award.
On November 10th, 2006 the Yakult Swallos posted Iwamura and it was announced four days later that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had won the rights to negotiate with him for 30 days after a bid of $4.5 million. The Devil Rays were very close to losing out on Iwamura as the window to negotiate was winding down, but just as the deadline was about to hit they were able to agree to a contract.
On December 15th, it was announced that the Devil Rays had signed Iwamura to a 3-year deal with an option for a 4th, with the total deal worth $12.25 million, including the posting fee. Iwamura would be the 3rd Japanese player in team history behind Hideo Nomo, who signed a free agent in 2005, and Shinji Mori, who was also signed through the posting system during the '05-'06 off-season.
Devil Rays' Rookie Season
Heading into 2007's Spring Training, it was unknown what position Iwamura would play for Tampa Bay. Iwamura was open to playing almost anywhere on the field to fit the biggest need. The Devil Rays had experimented with BJ Upton at 3B the prior season, but his play was inconsistent, so that seemed to be the spot for Iwamura to play.
Indeed, Iwamura made his MLB debut on an emotional Opening Day in New York against the Yankees, batting 6th and playing third base. During the pregame ceremonies, the Yankees paid tribute to a former Devil Ray, the late Cory Lidle, who had tragically died the previous October in a plane crash. Iwamura had his 1st AB with 1 out in the top of the 2nd against the Yakees' starter, Carl Pavano, with the score already 2-0 in favor of New York. Iwamura would work the count full, before hitting a soft groundball between 3rd and Short. Derek Jeter was able to get to it and make a throw, but overthrew it for an E6 to advance Iwamura to 2nd. Iwamura would eventually come around to score on a B.J. Upton single to score the Devil Rays' 1st run of the season.
Iwamura would walk in his next AB and record his 1st MLB hit when he laced a single to left to lead off the top of the 6th against Yankees' reliever, Sean Henn. Hustle, eye, contact -- an immediate threat in the batter's box. Iwamura would groundout in his last AB of the game and Devil Rays eventually lost, 9-5.
Iwamura began the season hitting safely in 11 of 12 games, including a 9 game hitting steak. On April 6th, against the Toronto Blue Jays, Iwamura went 4-4, with his 1st career HR, a blast to RIght-Center off of Gustavo Chacin, and he also scored the game winning run in the bottom of the 9th inning on an infield single by Upton.
Iwamura was easily the team's best player in the opening month of the season, with his fantastic acrobatic plays at 3rd and his hot bat. Unfortunately, on April 23rd, Iwamura strained his right oblique muscle in the bottom of the 5th inning of a game against the New York Yankees. The Devil Rays had a 5-4 lead, when Iwamura came up against Kei Igawa with Delmon Young on 1st. On an 0-1 pitch, Iwamura ripped a ball to the deepest part of Tropicana Field, but unfortunately, that's when he stained his oblique. He was able to make it into 2nd with a double, which scored Young from 1st, and he was also able to remain in the game.
The day after, Iwamura was placed on the Disabled List and Jorge Cantu was called up to take his place. At the time of his injury, Iwamura was leading the team with a .339 AVG, which was 9th in the AL. Heading into the game that Iwamura was injured, he had been the winning or tying run in 6 of the team's 7 wins.
Iwamura was activated May 28th, the team optioned Jonny Gomes to Durham to make room on the roster. Iwamura started that night's game against Chad Durbin and the Detroit Tigers. Iwamura made the start at 3rd and was batting 7th in Joe Maddon's lineup. He shined in the infield in the 3rd, when Gary Sheffield hit a hard-chopped ball towards toward deep 3rd, Iwamura had to run back towards his glove side and make a strong off balanced throw from the outfield grass. Carlos Pena made a fine play, with a nice pick at 1st to record the 1st out of the inning.
In the 9th, the Tigers' Closer, Todd Jones, came on to try and close out the game for Detroit. Delmon Young led off against Jones, with a line drive single to right. Iwamura was up next, he lined a 3-2 pitch back up the middle for a single. Josh Wilson pinch hit for Riggans, and he sacrificed the runners over. Greg Norton came on to pinch hit for Harris, and Jones intentionally walked him to bring up Elijah Dukes with the bases loaded, and one out. On the 1st pitch of the AB, Dukes chopped the ball over Brandon Inge's head at 3rd and into shallow LF. Young scored easily, and Iwamura came around 3rd and beat Craig Monroe's throw to give the Devil Rays a thrilling 6-5 walkoff win.
Iwamura quickly became a fan favorite in 2007, and continued to hit well as well as provide exceptional defense. He finished the year with 7 HR, 34 RBI, and slashed .285/.359/.411 in 123 games.
Iwamura led all MLB 3B in fielding percentage with .975, which was the 2nd highest ever by a rookie 3rd baseman. The highest was .978, posted by Don Gutteridge in 1937 for the St. Louis Cardinals. His .285 AVG was the 3rd highest ever for a Rays rookie, behind Rocco Baldelli's 2003 campaign and fellow rookie, Delmon Young's 2007. Additionally, his .359 OBP was a Devil Rays' rookie record and good for a tie with Troy Tulowitzki for 3rd among MLB rookies. Despite Iwamura's numbers, he failed to place in Rookie of the Year voting.
Catalyst for History
During the 2007 season, the Rays 2006 1st round draft pick, Evan Longoria, was rapidly advancing through the system. Longoria had an excellent bat and glove at 3B, meaning Iwamura would have to vacate the top prospect's position. During the 2007- 2008 offseason, the Devil Rays cut the Devil out of the name to re-make the team name, Tampa Bay Rays, complete with new uniforms and colors, and shifted Iwamura to second base.
Even though Longoria didn't make the team out of Spring Training, Iwamura was batting leadoff and playing 2B for the Rays on Opening Day. Iwamura didn't fare too well though, and went 0-5. Iwamura struggled throughout April, but on April 26th, in a game against the Boston Red Sox. Entering the bottom of the 8th of a 1-0 game, the Rays were being dominated by starter Clay Buchholz. Gabe Gross struck out swinging to start the inning, followed by a Dioner Navarro single and a Jason Bartlett flyout, to bring up Iwamura with Navarro on 1st and 2 out.
Buchholz got Iwamura to 1-1, when he tried to drop a curve in. Iwamura was able to wait back though, and smashed it down the RF line, sending the ball about a dozen rows up. As Aki was leaving the batter's box, he unleashed a glorius batflip and proceeded to round the bases with his 1st HR of 2008 and gave the Rays a 2-1 lead. In the 9th, Troy Percival would come on and nail the coffin shut on Boston by striking out Jason Varitek.
After that game, Iwamura's season turned around, as he recorded 41 hits in the month of May, which led the AL and set a new team record hits in that month, raising his average from .202 on May 1st to .281 on May 30th. Entering June, both the Rays and Iwamura were playing excellently. The Rays were 35-22, having gone 8-2 in their past 10 games, and were 1st in the AL East, with a 1 game lead over the Red Sox. On June 3rd, the Rays were beginning a 3 game series against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
In the 1st game of the series, Iwamura led off with a HR over the Green Monster in Left but the Rays blew a lead and eventually lost 7-4. During the 2nd game, the Rays were down 4-1 entering the bottom of the 6th, and Jason Hammel came on in relief of Edwin Jackson. Varitek struckout to lead off the inning, Coco Crisp followed that with an infield single, Julio Lugo flew out to bring up Jacoby Ellsbury. On Hammel's 1st pitch to Ellsbury, Crisp took off and stole 2nd, however, on the slide he jammed his thumb on Bartlett's knee but would remain in the game. Fast forward to the bottom of the 8th, and Crisp walked to leadoff the inning. With a 1-1 count, Crisp took off again, but this time with Iwamura covering the bag. Crisp went in hard and barreled into Aki causing him to flip over to get out of the way. Iwamura was able to make the tag though and hold on to the ball for the out. After Hammel struck out Lugo, Joe Maddon came out to relive him with Trever Miller. While Maddon was out on the mound, he exchanged words with Crisp in the Red Sox dugout, and both became heated. The Rays eventually lost, 5-1.
The next game, tensions were high and everyone was expecting the Rays to retaliate, but the Red Sox scored first in the game. After James Shields hit Dustin Pedroia with a pitch, he scored on a 3-Run HR from Manny Ramirez, giving Boston an early 3-run lead. The Rays would answer back with a run in the 2nd after a Willy Aybar double and a Jonny Gomes single.
In the bottom of the 2nd, Coco Crisp was leading off against Shields. The 1st pitch was a ball, but on the next pitch, Shields hit Crisp in the thigh. After he was hit, Crisp motioned towards 1st as if he were going to take his base, but than he charged towards Shields. As the two met just in front of the mount, Shields threw a sloppy haymaker that just missed its mark, and Crisp countered with a jab. After that, Navarro was able to bearhhug Crisp from behind and drag him to the ground, at which point Gomes flattened the outfielder, and Iwamura and Carl Crawford jumped in to join in pummelling Crisp.
When the dust settled and order was restored, Shields, Gomes, and Crisp were all ejected. When it came time for more punishment, 8 players were suspended several games for their actions: Iwamura and Sean Casey - 3, Crawford - 4, Jon Lester, Edwin Jackson, and Gomes - 5, Shields - 6, and Crisp - 7.
As the season progressed, Iwamura and the Rays continued to pullout tough wins, playing crucial games in September for the first time in team history and winning the AL East title with a record of 97-65.
At the end of the regular season, Iwamura had put up franchise leading numbers for a Rays second baseman, including cgories for ate runs, hits, ab's, triples, doubles, and OBP. Furthermore, Iwamura also able to lead the team in games played, runs, and hits, due in part to a lack of injuried during the regular season. Iwamura finished the year with 6 HR, 48 RBI, and slashed .274/.349/.380 in 152 games.
On October 2nd, 2008 the Rays were beginning their 1st ever playoff series in the ALDS against the Chicago White Sox at Tropicana Field. After Shields pitched a 1-2-3 top half of the first inning, Iwamura became the first Rays player to go to bat in the playoffs (he would groundout to 1st).
In the bottom of the 3rd, Iwamura would take his 2nd AB with the Rays trailing 3-1. Bartlett had led off the inning with a single, and Iwamura followed with a drive over Ken Griffey Jr.'s head in center that one-hopped the wall. Bartlett would come around to score, and Iwamura was able to make it safely to 3rd with a triple when Juan Uribe couldn't handle the throw. Iwamura would score on a sacrifice fly from Aybar to tie the game, and the Rays would take the lead on Longoria's 2nd HR of the game. The Rays eventually won the first playoff game in franchise history, 6-4.
The Rays would win the series against the White Sox in four games. In game 2 of the series, Iwamura had a clutch HR against Mark Buehrle. Entering the bottom of the 5th inning, the Rays were trailing by 1, when Iwamura came up with 1 out and Bartlett on 1st. The count was 1-1, when Iwamura lifted a flyball to Left-Center Field and that cleared the wall by a couple of rows and gave the Rays a 3-2 lead. They'd eventually win that game, 6-2.
In the ALCS, the Rays played a fierce 7-game series against the Red Sox. Iwamura struggled with the bat in this round, but shined with his glove. In the 7 games, Iwamura only recorded 6 hits in 29 AB's. In game 7, Iwamua went 1-4, he didn't knock anyone in and score any runs, but he would be remembered in Rays lore for his impact on the game.
Entering the 9th inning, David Price was in the game with a 3-1 lead and was going to try and close out the series. He had done a masterful job of shutting down a Red Sox threat in the 8th, but he started off the 9th with an 8 pitch walk to Jason Bay. Price followed that with back-to-back strikeouts of Mark Kotsay and Varitek, to bring up pinch-hitter, Jed Lowrie, with 2 outs and Bay on 1st. Price blazed a fastball in for a called strike, and on the next pitch, Lowrie bounced a ball to Iwamura at 2nd. The ball took a bad hop, but Iwamura was able to stab it. He took the ball out of his glove and sprinted towards 2nd. Aki put his foot on the bag for the final out, jumped for joy with both arms up in the air, and charged Price on the mound as the celebration began. Iwamura had recorded the final out of the ALCS, the Rays were the AL Champions. You can re-live the full game here.
Unfortunately for the Rays and Iwamura, they'd play a sloppy World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies and lost in 5 games. Iwamura, who had been almost golden at his new position, made 2 errors in the series. He recorded 5 hits in 19 AB's (.263), which was actually better than most of the team.
Bad Injury and Sayonara
Iwamura spent the majority of Spring Training playing in the World Baseball Classic for the Japanese, team that would win the championship. Once the MLB season began, Iwamura hit excellently and was one of the main offensive forces for Tampa Bay.
Unfortnately, on May 24th, during a game against the Florida Marlins in Miami, Iwamura was terribly injured. In the bottom of the 8th inning of a tied ballgame with runners, Chris Coghlan on 1st and John baker on 2nd, Dan Wheeler was pitching to pinch-hitter, Wes Helms. On a 0-2 pitch, Helms made a half-hearted swing and chopped a ball back to Wheeler, who turned and threw to Iwamura at 2nd. Coghlan slid in hard to try and break up the double play, but his foot went right into Iwamura's leg, cause Aki to tumble on the ground in pain. Meanwhile, Baker tried to score during the distraction, but Bartlett threw home in time to nail Baker.
It was revealed a day later that Iwamura had partially torn his ACL, badly enough that he would require surgery, and it was thought that Iwamura would miss the remainder of the season.
Surprisingly, Iwamura was ready to rehab by mid-August and was sent to Triple-A Durham on August 14th. Iwamura played there for 2 weeks and hit well, on August 29th, he made his return to Joe Maddon's lineup in a game in Detroit, going 1-2 with 2 walks. Iwamura stayed healthy the rest of the season and solid both with the glove and the bat, finishing the year with 1 HR and 22 RBI, and slashed .290/.390/.745 in 69 games.
At the end of the season, the Rays had to decide whether or not to exercise their option on Iwamura. His injury had cleared the way for the emergence of Ben Zobrist as an every day player, and prospect Reid Brignac, along with with the recently acquired infielder Sean Rodriguez, were ready to jump up to the majors. Iwamura had become expendable.
On November 3rd, the Rays decided to exercise the option, then immediately sent him to the Pittsburgh Pirates, making Iwamura the highest paid player for Pittsburgh. He was acquired for Jesse Chavez, who in turn was sent to Atlanta a few days later for closer Rafael Soriano.
Iwamura was the Pirates' Opening Day leadoff hitter and 2B, but after his average fell below .200 in May, Iwamura was used mainly off the bench. On June 16th, the Pirates Designated Iwamura for Assignment so they could call up top prospect Pedro Alvarez. Pittsburgh couldn't find any trade partners and Iwamura was was sent to Triple-A Indianapolis a week later. Iwamura wouldn't return to Pittsburgh and Iwamura was released on September 10th.
Two days later, Iwamura signed with Oakland Athletics and made his 1st appearance a day later, going 0-2 with 2 BB's. Iwamura finished the season with Oakland, and was released on October 4th to clear room on the 40-man roster. Iwamura finished the 2010 season with 2 HR and 13 RBI, having slashed .173/.285/.250 in 64 games.
Back to Japan
After Iwamura's terrible 2010 season, he was free agent and wished to remain in the majors. Unfortnatley, he couldn't find a suitable offer and signed with the Rakuten Golden Eagles on November 13th, 2010. Iwamura spent 2 years with the Golden Eagles and re-signed with his old club of eight years, the Yakult Swallows, at the end of 2012.
Awards from his playing time in Japan:
- Two-time Gold Medal winner in the World Baseball Classic (2006, 2009)
- Six-time Golden Glove winner at Third Base (2000-2002, 2004-2006)
- Three-time NPB All-Star (2001, 2004, 2005)
- Two-time Best Nine (2002, 2006)
- Monthly MVP (August 2004)
- Japan Series Valuable Player (2001)
Highlights from Iwamura's Career:
MLB Stat Line: 4.5 WAR, .267 AVG, .345 OBP, .720 OPS, 16 HR, 117 RBI, and 32 SB
INTL Stat Line: ? WAR, .286 AVG, .350 OBP, .834 OPS, 163 HR, 513 RBI, and 61 SB