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Kawakami kicks off US tenure in style


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BRADENTON, Fla. -- While attending college in Japan, Kenshin Kawakami adopted Greg Maddux as his favorite Major League Baseball player. He routinely wore Braves T-shirts adorned with Maddux's name and took advantage of every opportunity to watch the legendary hurler pitch.

"I tried to imitate him, but it was impossible," Kawakami said through his interpreter.

When the Braves lured Kawakami from Japan this offseason, they obviously had no expectations of seeing him imitate Maddux's previous magic. But they were confident he could duplicate some of the success he's enjoyed over the past 13 seasons while serving as one of the top pitchers in Japan's Central League.

Like most other Major League pitchers, Kawakami is likely still a few weeks from displaying his top form. But while making his first career appearance in the United States on Friday afternoon against the Pirates, the 33-year-old right-hander certainly made a solid first impression on his new employer.

"He was very impressive," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "Everything that I saw was outstanding. "

While allowing one hit in two scoreless innings, Kawakami displayed a heavy dose of fastballs and a few good-looking curveballs. The Japanese hurler acknowledged he's still not producing optimal movement with his cutter. The only hit he surrendered came when Adam LaRoche fisted an opposite-field single to shallow left field with one out in the second inning.

"I was happy with what I saw from him today," Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "He located his fastball and jammed a few of their hitters."

With more than a month remaining before he makes his Major League debut, Kawakami is comfortable with where he is in preseason preparation, which is different than what he experienced while in Japan -- where he routinely pitched as part of a six-man starting rotation.

"It's a learning process," Kawakami said through his interpreter. "Today was good. But there will be bad outings, and that's when I will need to look to make improvements. "

When Kawakami concluded his first outing in a big league setting, he found himself surrounded by 30 Japanese reporters assigned to deliver his progress back to a nation that views him as one of its top pitchers.

Kawakami captured the Sawamura Award -- the Central League's equivalent of the Cy Young Award -- and was named the league's MVP in 2004, when he went 17-7 with a 3.32 ERA. Over the past five seasons, Kawakami is 66-35 with a 3.12 ERA.

These credentials likely helped create the quiet confidence Kawakami has displayed since arriving for big league camp. He said that he wasn't feeling any undue pressure when he stepped on the mound to face the Pirates.

Some of his nerves may have been calmed when Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell wished him good luck in Japanese. McDowell has spent the past six weeks attempting to learn some key words that will help him communicate with Kawakami.

Kawakami is also seemingly gaining a better feel for the English language. He has been greeting people by saying, "Morning," over the past few weeks. In addition, he's also grown comfortable with simple phrases such as "Thank you."

After Friday's outing, a reporter asked Kawakami if he was aware of the pitching dominance Atlanta once possessed in its organization. Before allowing his interpreter to provide an interpretation, the hurler responded, "I know."

Right now, the Braves don't know exactly how Kawakami will fare when the regular season begins, but it appears they are confident about his future from what they've witnessed so far.

"I've liked everything that I've seen," Cox said.

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