Tuesday, March 31, 2009
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Johjima has short span to get ready for M's opener

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[March 31, 2009]  PEORIA, Ariz. (AP) -- During most bullpen sessions this late in spring training, a non-roster invitee like Chris Jakubauskas would be throwing to some minor-league catcher up with the team to give the regulars a break.

But while starters Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard were firing fastballs to backups on a recent morning, it was Mariners' catcher Kenji Johjima squatting behind the dish to learn how Jakubauskas throws, just in case he makes Seattle's final roster.

This isn't just a crash course for Johjima in the final days of spring training. It's an all-out cram session worthy of any college student studying up during finals week. Johjima must learn new signs, get to know the needs and wishes of a new coaching staff, and catch as many different pitchers as possible before the season opener on April 6 -- all without wearing himself out.

Simple, right?

"You could definitely say it's going to be a difficult thing," Johjima said through an interpreter.


It's a crash-course Johjima faces as the Mariners close out spring training this week. The balancing act between acclimation with pitchers and giving Johjima sufficient rest is a daily conversation in manager Don Wakamatsu's office.

If not for the World Baseball Classic, this would be a non-issue. Johjima would have been in camp since the middle of February. He'd have a good grasp on the staff he will be catching and adequate time to rest his body to prepare for the full season.

Instead, Johjima's been going basically nonstop since early February, when he made a trip from Japan to Arizona to meet with Wakamatsu and some of the Mariners new coaches, a simple meet-and-greet session. Then it was back to Japan for training with the Japanese WBC team, nine games played in the WBC and finally back to Arizona last Thursday for the remainder of spring training and a daily study session leading up to the opener in Minnesota.

"The starters I've known from last year, so right now what is important is to catch the middle relievers and get to know them," Johjima said. "Another thing I need to get done is to learn the signs from the skipper."

The late arrival to spring training brings a steep learning curve for Johjima, but nothing like the pressure he'll face back in Seattle to rebound from a sub-par performance last season. Johjima could have gone to free agency after last season, but instead signed a surprising $24 million, three-year contract extension last April, one that will keep him in Seattle through 2011.

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He then went out and hit a career-worst .227 and played only 112 games, making the three-year deal seem even more baffling, and appearing to stunt the growth of young catching prospects Jeff Clement and Rob Johnson. Clement was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma on Sunday, leaving Johjima, veteran non-roster invitee Jamie Burke and Johnson as the only catchers in camp.

There were also some pitchers who didn't like how Johjima called games. For example, Jamie Burke mostly caught Bedard last season. That only heightens the importance of having Johjima catch frequently in the final few days in Arizona.

"He's been away from what we've done for the last month or so," Wakamatsu said. "Just being able to catch and the little nuances with every pitcher -- some things we've changed from last year -- all those things we have to expedite."

Johjima was in the starting lineup for the fourth time in five games on Monday, preparing to catch a group that included possible starter Ryan Rowland-Smith and bullpen candidates Jesus Delgado and Shawn Kelley. The team has talked about using Johjima in later innings of games to catch more relievers or just having Johjima catch additional bullpen sessions as camp concludes.

"We've really kind of broken out lineups for the (final week) to make sure everyone is getting their work and is ready for Minnesota," Wakamatsu said. "So the challenge is catching everybody and not wearing him out."

[Associated Press; By TIM BOOTH]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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