Kobayashi debuts to much fanfare

Kobayashi debuts to much fanfare

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Might Masa mania be coming to Cleveland this summer?

Maybe so.

Though he wasn't overpowering in his Spring Training debut on Friday, Indians right-hander Masahide Kobayashi gave hints of why the Indians were willing to give him a two-year, $6.25 million contract this winter.

"He throws harder than I expected and it looks like he has a good idea of how to go after [hitters]," said one scout who watched Kobayashi pitch a scoreless inning against Houston. "I can see why [the Indians] liked him. He'll help them this year."

"I thought he threw the ball well," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "He was under control out there, pitching with confidence."

Kobayashi, one of three pitchers in Japanese baseball history with more than 200 saves, signed a free agent contract with Cleveland after nine years with the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japanese Pacific League.

A member of Japan's Olympic team in 2004, Kobayashi led the Pacific League with 34 saves three years ago. His career ERA is 2.79.

Wedge is hoping Kobayashi can join right-hander Rafael Betancourt to give the Indians a potentially dynamite late-inning bridge to closer Joe Borowski as well as another closer option.

With a fastball routinely in the low- to mid-90's complemented by a hard slider and splitter, Kobayashi certainly has the tools for that task. But until Friday, Wedge and his staff hadn't seen Kobayashi pitch in a game.

"[He's a] pitcher," Wedge said. "Throws the ball where he wants to, knows what he wants to do. You can tell he's quite a competitor."

You certainly could on Friday.

The Astros greeted Kobayashi with a pair of groundball singles and loaded the bases when the Indians were unable to complete the force on Geoff Blum's grounder to second. But Kobayashi induced David Newhan to pop up to third base and retired Jose Cruz Jr. on a fly to short center.

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The 33-year-old then struck out Victor Diaz with a slider that the scout said registered 90 mph on his radar gun.

"That was pretty impressive for him to pitch out of that jam," Wedge said. "Any time you can get out of a situation like that, that says a lot about a guy."

Kobayashi, through interpreter Toshi Nagahara said he was a little nervous.

"I need to be nervous to be focused," Kobayashi said. "I didn't want to think too much, [I] wanted to focus on getting outs one by one."

Kobayashi said the biggest difference he saw between pitching here and pitching in Japan is "I don't know anything about the other team."

He arrived as a little known commodity, and outside of Japan and Cleveland's camp, remains so. And unlike Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka before him, for the most part, this Japanese import has flown under the radar. A contingent of 10 Japanese media members followed Kobayashi around on Friday.

He gave them reason to stick around. And he gave the Indians reason to feel good about signing him.

They'll have to work on the communications though, especially if Masa mania grows.

Wedge described the communication process with his new reliever as "a work in progress."

"Ask me that in about a year," Wedge said. "We'll just try to be as much ahead of the curve as possible."

Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.