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Ishii Still a Starter for a Wild

Baseball: Although puzzled by left-hander's control problems, Dodgers say he remains in rotation.

April 03, 2002|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Dodgers said Tuesday that struggling pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii's command problems bewilder them, but he's still in the starting rotation. At least for a while.

The wild left-hander is scheduled to pitch Saturday against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium, though Manager Jim Tracy said the club would "continue to take a close look at the situation." Tracy was noncommittal about whether Ishii--who walked seven batters in only 22/3 innings in his final exhibition start--would be sent to the bullpen if he had another disappointing outing.

This is not how the Dodgers envisioned Ishii beginning his first major league season after a standout 10-year career in Japan.

"Put this in the paper: He will be [successful]," Tracy said after the San Francisco Giants' 9-2 opening-day victory before a sellout crowd of 53,356 at Dodger Stadium. "You can't pitch the way this guy pitched in Japan and not be able to climb that hurdle over here. And this is not a one game-proposition for us, but we need to get to the bottom of this and figure out what the hell is going on.

"If we knew what was causing [Ishii's anxiety] we would have solved the problem already. That's really the only question that we have to get answered because he has outstanding stuff. I had him in my office the other day with [pitching coach Jim Colborn] to just talk to him and try to get him to relax, but we're still trying to figure out exactly what it is. We need to relieve the anxiety and we're working on it."

The process has been much slower than Ishii and the Dodgers would prefer.

General Manager Dan Evans bid $11.26 million to negotiate with Ishii, then gave him a four-year, $12.2-million contract. The Dodgers decided not to re-sign talented right-hander Chan Ho Park, their top starter last season, in part because they were pursuing Ishii.

Evans cited Ishii's performance in last season's Japan Series Championship--he pitched eight shutout innings with 12 strikeouts while helping the Yakult Swallows to the title--in describing him as a "big-game pitcher." Colborn raised the bar even higher before Ishii had thrown a pitch in the big leagues, saying, "He's a scaled-down version of Randy Johnson," the Arizona Diamondbacks' four-time Cy Young Award winner.

Then Ishii had a 13.33 earned-run average in 81/3 exhibition innings and couldn't throw strikes consistently. In a 6-3 loss to the Seattle Mariners on Sunday at Safeco Field, Ishii gave up five runs, four hits, walked seven--among them five consecutive batters in the third--and hit a batter.

Evans said the Dodgers have not discussed putting Ishii in the bullpen, but that's where the club's biggest off-season acquisition could soon be headed.

"It's self-induced pressure," Ishii said through an interpreter. "I'm putting pressure on myself, and I must have confidence to have success. It's a tiny bit stressful that I'm not able to play the way I know I'm able to play."

For the Dodgers too.

"Is there a huge problem with him? No. Is he perfect right now? No. But we know he's going to be OK," Evans said. "We're fully committed to this guy. You can't expect perfection, particularly in the last outing in spring training. There are a lot of guys who struggle in spring training, and then once the season starts and it counts it's a whole lot different."

Although it seems Ishii's problems are more mental than mechanical, the Dodgers have not encouraged him to consult a sports psychologist. It's a delicate situation and they're treading lightly.

"He had a bullpen [session] today, and he seemed more focused and determined than he had been," Colborn said. "I don't know if this is the case, but it could be that his [only] goal had been to come to America. Now, I think he's realizing he has to prepare to compete."

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