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Make-or-break season for Twins' Nishioka

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FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP)

(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JON KRAWCZYNSKIAP Baseball Writer

Tsuyoshi Nishioka walked into the clubhouse at the Minnesota Twins spring training complex for the first time last year, and a hush fell over the room. A dozen Japanese reporters and cameramen followed behind as Nishioka shook hands with every player, one at a time.

The rock star-like arrival preceded a disastrous first season in the United States for the middle infielder.

Now all those cameras and reporters from his homeland are gone, off to cover bigger stories like the arrival of pitching star Yu Darvish with the Texas Rangers. If Nishioka doesn't show major improvement from a rookie year in which he hit just .226 with five extra-base hits in 68 games for the Twins, he thinks he could be gone, too.

''That's why I came back, to challenge this year again,'' Nishioka said Thursday through interpreter Ryo Shinkawa. ''If I don't put up numbers this year, it might be better to throw it all out.''

Nishioka is in the second season of a three-year, $9.25 million deal he signed to come overseas after winning the batting title and a Gold Glove at shortstop in Japan in 2010. He wasn't implying that he would hang it up if things didn't go well; rather he was acknowledging that there is a lot riding on his second year in the U.S.

''It's just like our season as an organization last year,'' general manager Terry Ryan said. ''I'm still talking about aberrations, but if you back it up (with another losing season), then you really have to start looking at what's going on. It's the same with players. You can have an off year, or injury filled year. Things happen. But you don't want to see it snowball into another one.''

Nishioka, and the Twins in general, hope that familiarity will lead to a different outcome this season. After helping his team to a league championship, the 26-year-old Nishioka went through the posting system to make himself available to major leagues. Looking for a middle infielder to provide some speed and good defense, the Twins outbid every other team for his services.

He was penciled in as the starting second baseman early in camp, but the transition, both culturally and athletically, proved difficult. Nishioka broke his left leg in the second series of the season at the New York Yankees and never looked comfortable when he came back.

''It was kind of my own decision to come to major league and challenge,'' Nishioka said. ''But definitely it was a tough season.''

The Twins are just trying to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.

''I think we just have to throw that year out,'' manager Ron Gardenhire said. ''It didn't work out for him too well, and for any of us. We're going to put him back out there with the rest of them and see what happens, see what kind of player we have. Hopefully we'll be able to see a little bit better of what we have. Last year was kind of a mess.''

The speed, and intensity, of the game seemed to overwhelm him at times. A reluctance to use his backhand on defense was a major detriment and he was overpowered by the pitching he faced. A player who was supposed to be a spark plug by getting on base, putting pressure on the pitcher with his speed and scoring runs, wound up with only five doubles, 14 runs scored and two stolen bases.

''Once the season starts then the game's turned up a notch,'' Gardenhire said. ''You're playing every inning against big league baseball players and the game can control you if you let it and it kind of overtook him.''

He certainly won't have to deal with the spotlight this spring like he did last. Gardenhire said he thought Nishioka was pressing to show he belonged last season, to prove that all the attention was merited.

''His skills have never been in question,'' Ryan said. ''Execution and staying healthy. I certainly hope he succeeds. For gosh sakes we have a lot invested in him.''

This year there is no attention. He's expected to be a bench player, not a starter, after the Twins signed shortstop Jamey Carroll in the offseason. Ryan said Nishioka could see some time at third base this spring, as well as shortstop and second base.

In some ways, that may be for the best.

''The previous year, winning the championship in Japan and with the posting system, everything was kind of in a chaos,'' Nishioka said. ''This year I was able to go back to Japan in October and kind of relax a little bit and regroup and get ready for the season.''

---

Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/APKrawczynski

Tagged: Twins

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