- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

BALTIMORE | Koji Uehara was dominant in Japan. Now it's time to see how the right-hander fares in the major leagues.

The Baltimore Orioles' first Japanese-born pitcher makes his big league debut Wednesday night against the New York Yankees. Uehara, who signed a two-year, $10 million contract in January, will usher in a new era for Baltimore with his first pitch.

“It's a historic day for him, the Orioles and for major league baseball,” Baltimore manager Dave Trembley said. “I think it's a step in the right direction.”

The 34-year-old Uehara is an eight-time Japanese League All-Star and two-time winner of the Sawamura Award, given to Japan's best pitcher. His lifetime record with the Yomiuri Giants - Japan's equivalent to the esteemed Yankees - was 112-62 with a 3.01 ERA.

That impressive resume won't mean much when he faces Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, Mark Teixeira and countryman Hideki Matsui. But Uehara can't wait to begin the next phase of his baseball career.

“It is a new experience for me, so I'm really looking forward to it,” he said through an interpreter. “I am obviously excited.”

Uehara speaks little English, but his new teammates have made him feel at home in the clubhouse by attempting to learn some Japanese and sharing with him some choice words of their own language - many not suitable for print.

Uehara pitched 10 seasons in Japan, but he's not above learning some new tricks. He has added a change-up to his repertoire, courtesy of Orioles pitching coach Rick Kranitz, and the results have been impressive.

Despite battling a hamstring strain that forced him to miss a start during spring training, Uehara cemented the No. 2 spot in the rotation by going 2-1 with a 3.68 ERA. He had 17 strikeouts compared to only four walks in 14 2/3 innings.

The Yankees, coming off a 10-5 loss to Baltimore on Opening Day, should provide more of a challenge. And Uehara knows it.

“Obviously when the season starts, the hitters, their eyes will change,” he said. “They're into it more. I am going to expect that type of competition.”

Said Trembley: “I don't expect Koji to be any different than what I saw the first day. The guy is a professional. His preparation is off the charts.”

The most important facet of Uehara's game is getting the ball over the plate. In Japan, he issued only 206 walks over 1,549 innings - an average of .08 per nine innings.

“He's come as advertised. He's a strike thrower,” Trembley said. “He can command areas of the strike zone seemingly at will. I would think if his game is off, it would be because he doesn't throw it across the plate. But I have not seen that in spring training.”

If such a problem occurs during the regular season, Uehara will do what every other big league pitcher does: He will make the proper adjustment.

“I haven't changed anything, but that may be needed to do down the road,” he said.

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