Gardy’s Bi-lingual!

Who’da thunk it?

We all wondered how long it would take for Twins manager Ron Gardenhire to learn to communicate with the Twins’ most recent import from the other side of the globe. Well, thanks to 1500ESPN radio’s Phil Mackey, we now know that Gardy has learned enough of his new infielder’s native language to communicate a bit… even if the player himself appears to be having a little trouble understanding exactly what his manager is saying.

Oh… you think I’m talking about Gardy knowing enough Japanese to chat with Tsuyoshi Nishioka? Heavens no… I think we’ll be seeing Gardy with his handy-dandy English/Japanese pocket dictionary all summer long.

Luke Hughes (Photo: Brian Henricksen)

But apparently he’s been much quicker to pick up enough Australian to communicate with red-hot rookie infielder Luke Hughes, as evidenced by this quote from Mackey’s post game notes:

“I asked him, ‘Mate, have you ever played shortstop.’ He went, ‘Are you serious?’ And I went, ‘Very serious.’ Then I went, ‘Nevermind the question, just go play short.’”

That’s our Twins manager… Crocodile Gardee!

One other item in Mackey’s post that I really liked to see was his quotes from Kevin Slowey.  You may have heard that Gardenhire has handed out four of the starting rotation spots already and, with one spot remaining, Slowey and Scott Baker are the last two men waiting for the music to stop in this rather bizarre cake walk game.

Slowey’s thrown 10 innings in his past three starts without giving up a run, so you could certainly understand if he was feeling a bit overlooked, and possibly even disrespected, by his manager stringing him along. But here’s Slowey’s response when asked how much he’s sweating out these last couple weeks of Spring Training:

“None, really,” he said. “It’s not really worth sweating it. I think you ask any one of the guys in this clubhouse, we’ll do anything it takes to help this team win. And I think we’ve seen that the last couple years.

“You’ve seen a guy like Jim Thome, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he doesn’t get 300 at-bats last year. He’s not complaining one bit. He’s talking about how excited he is to be a part of a championship team. I think if a guy like that can be satisfied with just being part of the team, certainly I can do the same.”

Is that a great response, or what? It also goes to show what kind of example Mr. Incredible, Jim Thome, is providing in that clubhouse.

I’m outta here!

This is it… the time has finally come… I head to Ft. Myers tomorrow (Tuesday) morning and while the weather outside isn’t TOO bad here, it’s nowhere near what I’m seeing in the forecast for Ft. Myers for the next seven days. (Wednesday through Tuesday… Highs ranging from 83-84, lows 58-62 and Sunny every day except Wednesday, when I’ll have to deal with partly cloudy skies. I’ll try to cope.)

I’m planning on spending Wednesday morning at both the Major League and minor league practice fields and then catching the Twins and Mets in the afternoon. Media reports are that Joe Mauer may very well making his Spring Training debut as a DH Wednesday and, since the following two games are on the road, I would expect to see pretty much all of the A-list position players in that game.

I am wondering a bit, though, how both Mauer and Thome will be managing to get swings in during the week I’m down there. The Twins have only two home games during the next week, Wednesday’s game with the Mets and Saturday’s with the Rays. The other four games between now and a week from today are road games with the Tigers (Lakeland), Orioles (Sarasota), Blue Jays (Dunedin), and Pirates (Bradenton). It’s hard to imagine either Mauer or Thome rattling across Florida on a bus. With minor league games getting started, maybe they’ll get a few cuts in one or two of those games.

Check in here at Knuckleballs from time to time… I’ll try to post a bit while I’m gone. I’m also going to try to send Howard a report or two that he can post over at “A Fan’s View From Section 219″… something he’s been gracious enough to let me do for several years now.

Finally, let’s sign off by sharing the following excellent Public Service Announcement, shown during Monday’s Twins/Marlins broadcast, from Michael Cuddyer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (video clip from the Star Tribune):

 

It’s Mardi Gras, Let’s Celebrate!

It’s not like we really need an EXCUSE to party tonight, but we might as well get in the Mardi Gras spirit, right!?

I may not be the biggest party animal in Twinsville, but there are plenty of reasons for Twins fans to be celebrating tonight!

First and foremost, there was the return of Justin Morneau to the playing field. Check out the video of both of Doc’s plate appearances this morning in the ‘B’ game with the Pirates!

This got everyone pretty excited!

It doesn’t take much to get the Twinsville Tweeters’ fingers going (much to Gardy’s chagrin, at times… does anyone else find it just hilarious that he hasn’t quite come to grips with the fact that things he tells reporters no longer take 18 hours before those words become public?) and we certainly had reactions flying across the airwaves today. Here’s just a sampling of today’s revelry:

Justin was all smiles after the game… at least I THINK there’s a smile under that fu manchu somewhere. Check out the pic link:

@Twins_morsecode Photo of the day – #Twins 1B all smiles. Justin Morneau. http://plixi.com/p/82536411

Naturally, Carl “the ‘stache” Pavano, himself, was not easily impressed:

@JoeCStrib Pavano on Morneau: “He shaved into a handlebar moustache. You gotta be feeling really good if you are going to be wearing that around here.”
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Joe Mauer was duly impressed… kind of:

@JoeCStrib Huge crowd was watching Mauer take swings in batting cage. I told him Morneau hit a 3-run 2B. “Did he?” Mauer said. “That’s pretty good.”

OK, so I’m not really sure this falls under the category of “revelry”… but it’s interesting anyway:

@JoeCStrib Blue Jays had 3 scouts watching B-game, one with a video camera. I’m told they like Slowey and have relievers to spare. #stribtwins

Tsuyoshi Nishioka got in to the Mardi Gras spirit:
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@TwinsNow Japanese media said Nishioka was very excited today because, for the first time with the #Twins, he started a double play.
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and…
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@JoeCStrib Nishioka lines an opposite-field single to left and is replaced by a pinch runner. He was 1-for-2 today. #stribtwins
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Ben Revere had his own way of celebrating:
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@PMac21 Ben Revere just made a ridiculous diving catch on the left-field warning track.
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Gardy was in a jovial mood, as well:
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@TomPelissero #Twins manager Ron Gardenhire when asked how Justin Morneau looked in his spring debut: “Canadian. Real Canadian.”
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Of course, Gardy made sure everyone knew Doc wasn’t the only guy making his spring debut today:

@TwinsNow Gardy on DY’s 2 walks today: “Haven’t seen that in a long time, ever maybe. … We thought that was historic.” #Twins
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OK I guess that’s enough celebrating for this old man tonight… and enough of stealing others’ work to fill blogspace here at Knuckleballs.
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So let me leave you with this final Mardi Gras thought… and image.
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Happy Mardi Gras, y’all!
-JC

Are The Twins The Team To Beat?

The Twins and their consensus AL Central Division challengers, the White Sox and Tigers, are all about 25-30% of the way through their Spring Training exhibition schedules, so maybe now is a good time to sneak a quick peek at how they’re measuring up. With the caveat being, as always, that you really shouldn’t read too much in to Spring Training performances, at least we aren’t having to do all of our evaluation “on paper”, as we did all off-season.

A lot of us were pretty harsh in our evaluations of the Twins’ moves (or lack thereof), especially during the first couple of months of the off-season. The Twins lost over half of their historically reliable bullpen and both of their starting middle infielders. With only one exception, the plan clearly became to replace those vacancies either from within or with spare parts picked up from other teams’ cast-offs. That strategy could very well work, at least in the bullpen, where there are a couple of guys with pretty good track records looking to regain past levels of effectiveness.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka (Photo: C Krupa/AP)

That one exception, Japanese batting champion Tsuyoshi Nishioka, comes with his own set of question marks, though the biggest is not necessarily one of his own making. Nishioka is relatively young for a guy making the transition from the NBL to Major League Baseball. He’s had a successful career in Japan, though he’s had some trouble staying healthy at times. The relative lack of experience, compared to other Japanese stars who’ve made the jump to the US, makes it impossible to know just how good he really is. On the other hand, it’s pretty tough to find comparable Japanese position players who have come over and become true stars at the MLB level. There’s Ichiro and… well… nobody else, really. The result is that American fans rightfully take a “show me” attitude toward Japanese imports.

Early returns are mixed on Nishioka. Scouting reports that his arm strength made him a better match for second base than shortstop have been somewhat backed up by his performance and after just a couple of games at each position, manager Ron Gardenhire announced that Nishioka would, indeed, play second base. Alexi Casilla, who broke in to the Angels organization as a shortstop, has the stronger arm and shortstop is his position to lose, at this point. But Nishioka seems to put bat on ball pretty well and that’s going to be critical if he hits in the #2 spot in the order.

Nishioka may be the lone “big addition” to the Twins roster over the winter, but the two biggest additions to the Twins’ 25-man roster entering the season stand to be names very familiar to Twins fans… Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau.  Some of us tend to forget that the Twins essentially won the AL Central last season with little contribution from two of their biggest stars. Nathan missed the entire 2010 season and Morneau missed the last half of the year. While Nathan appears to be back and ready to reclaim his closer role, Morneau has yet to be cleared to play in games. If the Twins have a healthy Morneau on the field most of the season (especially at the end, for a change) and if Nathan’s arm stays intact and he maybe gets a little help from Pat Neshek, who’s also hoping to return to past levels of effectiveness, there’s no reason the Twins shouldn’t be considered the favorite to defend their Division Championship.

The Competition

The Indians and Royals should be interesting to watch this season. Both have some very highly regarded young players, though it’s too early to know for sure how much time those prospects will see at the Major League level in 2011. In any event, it would surprise just about everyone if either of those teams was in contention for the AL Central title in September. But the White Sox and Tigers almost certainly will be.

A year ago, it seemed like everyone was handing the Division to the White Sox, on the strength of their starting rotation. The Sox’ brain trust (yeah, I know, referring to Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen as a brain trust is downright giggle-inducing) apparently felt their pitching was so good that they could and should dump Jim Thome from his DH spot and replace him with Mark Teahan… no, seriously, that’s what they thought! I don’t believe even the Sox fan base was surprised when they turned out to be wrong.

This year, the Whities have tweaked the pitching staff a bit, including signing away Jesse Crain from the Twins, but their biggest addition (both figuratively and literally) is 6’6” hitting machine, Adam Dunn. Dunn sees himself as a complete player, capable of playing defense as well as hitting, and hoped to stay in the National League, where he’s played his entire career. But he got only a token offer from the Nationals, while several AL teams made significantly higher offers, virtually all of which came with the catch that he’d primarily be a DH. Dunn may be reluctant to embrace that role, but make no mistake, he will excel at it. In his last six seasons, Dunn has hit 40, 40, 40, 40, 38 and 38 home runs. Hmmm… I wonder how many he’s likely to hit for the White Sox, especially in that Little League ballpark they have on the South Side.

The White Sox definitely should be better this year, but the Twins still have one thing going for them… that “brain trust” (giggle) can probably be counted on to screw things up somehow.

Speaking of screwing things up, I’m not sure whether Vegas let’s you bet on who will lead the Divisions at the mid-point of the season, but if they do, you can pretty safely put your money on the Detroit Tigers. Absolutely nobody will be shocked if the Tigers come out of the gate strong and lead the Twins and White Sox in to July. Likewise, absolutely nobody will be shocked if they go 10-20 in August and fade away in September.

How and why they do it is always a mystery. Maybe their pitching will fade, maybe a star player will need to detox. Every season we get to watch a new drama unfold in Detroit.

Again, make no mistake, the Tigers made some moves that look to improve themselves. Victor Martinez will make hitters around him better and Joaquin Benoit should improve their bullpen. I’m just not sure it will be enough to keep the Tigers in contention all year. Benoit can’t do it all himself and the rest of the Tigers bullpen isn’t terribly scary. Joel Zumaya throws serious heat, but the only thing he’s reliable at is getting hurt at some point. In fact, he’s already had the predictable “setback” in his recovery from elbow surgery. And let’s face it, Miguel Cabrera is a time bomb waiting to go off on that organization and, from all appearances, Tiger management’s plan to deal with his drinking problem consists of sticking their heads in the sand. Good luck with that.

So far this spring, the Tigers’ rotation is looking pretty good. Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer are all throwing strikes and getting outs. The guy to watch the rest of the spring, though, might be former Yankee Phil Coke. He’s looked pretty good over his first three starts and if he carries that performance in to the season, he could make an already strong rotation a very, very good rotation. On the offensive side, things aren’t so rosy yet. The three big bats in the middle of the Tiger order, Martinez, Cabrera and Ordonez, have accumulated OPS’s of .566, .334 and .286, respectively. Yes… those are the SUMS of their on-base percentages and slugging percentages. Ouch. Then again, small sample size. One of the games I’m planning on attending down in Florida in a couple of weeks is a Twins/Tigers matchup in Lakeland. I’m anxious to get a look at this year’s edition of the Tigers as we get deeper in to the exhibition season.

Over in Arizona, the White Sox are not having fun (at least not during the games). They’re 1-6, heading in to this week, and much of the blame for that lies with their vaunted rotation. While Peavy, Danks and Jackson got through their first starts without incident, Mark Buehrle and Gavin Floyd got beat around pretty good. Mr. Crain hasn’t looked too good yet, either, by the way. Dunn hasn’t gotten untracked either yet and, in fact, their only regular with a respectable showing with the bat so far is Juan Pierre, who’s OPS is north of .900. Alex Rios has the only HR for the White Sox in their first seven games.

To wrap things up on a positive note, I thought I would share this video from Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, evaluating the Twins prospects for defending their Division Championship. – JC

P.S. I did a guest spot on Seth Stohs (Sethspeaks.net) Sunday night podcast and you can click here to listen to the half hour program, during which Seth and I touched on a number of Twins topics. I’m also scheduled to appear with John Bonnes (TwinsGeek) on Fanatic Jack’s podcast at 9:00 this Wednesday night. – JC

Early Impressions

Spring Training Rule #1: Don’t read too much in to… well… anything, really.

I know, I know… I have some trouble taking my own advice at times (like, for example, when the Twins hitters can’t seem to get a ball out of the infield off of a procession of wanna-be Red Sox pitchers). But the rule still holds. This early during Spring Training, you just have to try to sit back and enjoy the simple fact that our guys are playing baseball again… finally. Well, most of them are, anyway.

Still, we do have blog space to fill here, so there’s a certain amount of obligation to write SOMETHING about the first few Spring Training games. So here’s what I’m thinking at the moment:

It’s very cool to see Joe Nathan back.

I’m one who’s remained skeptical that he would be able to return to his old form right out of the gate, just a year after Tommy John surgery. It’s sure looking good at the moment, though.

And here’s a couple of positive thoughts regarding Joe. First, I think it’s great that he’s been working on change up to add to his arsenal of pitches. He says it’s to try to stay a step ahead of hitters who, he believes, were starting to figure him out a bit. Second, I would imagine he could benefit a bit from the fact that hitters HAVEN’T faced him in over a year. If they were, in fact, starting to figure out his pitch patterns, etc., then they’d have to go back about a year and a half in their memories (and scouting reports) to recall what to expect. That lack of recent familiarity, along with a new pitch to think about, could give him a little edge.

There’s nothing to the Liriano trade rumors. But still…

Yes, it seems like every day a new report surfaces alluding to some kind of “inside source” indicating the Yankees and Twins are talking about, have talked about, will talk about, would talk about, might talk about a swap of Francisco Liriano to the Yankees for either five top prospects or five magic beans (depending on the source). It’s either just one source feeding garbage to all those reporters or it’s just a coincidence.

Yes, Terry Ryan was spotted scouting the Pirates/Yankees game this week. I’m sure it was just a coincidence.

Yes, I know the Twins, one of the most tight-lipped organizations in baseball when it comes to personnel matters, have gone oddly public with their pronouncements that they are not interested in extending Liriano’s contract. That’s a coincidence, too, I’m sure.

Finally, I know the team has announced Liriano will pitch in a “B-squad” game against the Rays on Friday, instead of the regularly scheduled game that afternoon. I can’t think of any reason why that might be significant, but I will say that, if I were in Ft. Myers this week, I’d be camped out at that B-squad game at 10 am Friday and checking to see who all was sitting around with clipboards and speedguns.

It’s all just a bunch of idle chatter and coincidences right now and it would be absolutely nuts for the Twins to even consider trading any of their six starting pitchers before they get much, much closer to Opening Day. But if March 15 rolls around and all six starting pitchers are healthy and looking relatively sharp… well, I’m not a real big believer in coincidences in the first place.

Brian Duensing’s role

There’s been a lot of debate over whether Brian Duensing should be in the rotation to start the season or whether he should be the guy, assuming all six experienced starting pitchers are healthy, who is sent to the bullpen.

Some people say he should go to the pen because he’s proven to be effective there the past two years. Some say he’s “earned” a rotation spot with his excellent stats the past two years when called on to be a starting pitcher. Others point out his peripheral stats may indicate he’s likely to regress a bit. In other words, everyone has a couple of different reasons why he should or shouldn’t be a starter or a bullpen guy. So I’m going to simplify it.

If, at the end of Spring Training, he’s looking like one of the best five starting pitchers, then he’s going to be in the rotation. Period. Nothing else should matter.

Look, this shouldn’t even be a debate. There simply is no comparison between the value of a starting pitcher, who will have a major influence over the outcome of every fifth game of the season, and a middle relief pitcher, who will very, very rarely EVER have a major influence on the outcome of any game.

If you have a guy who gives every appearance that he’s one of your best starting pitchers, that’s how you use him. The ONLY legitimate reason not to do so would be if you have reason to believe he’s not going to be able to give you 180+ innings of work in a season (due to pitching significantly fewer innings than that the prior season, for whatever reason).

Duensing threw about 130 innings last year. If you want to pace him a little bit to keep him from risking getting worn down just when you need him most, fine… maybe have him skip a start here or there. But there’s no reason he shouldn’t be ready to go 180 innings this season.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s early reviews

Nishi hasn’t hit much yet, but at least he’s making contact. He’s also apparently looking pretty good covering ground at second base. It’s still way too early to judge how the Nishioka-Casilla experiment is going to play out, but I haven’t heard or read anything yet to raise my concern level.

One thing I really am glad to be reading is that he seems to be getting pretty comfortable in the clubhouse and on the field with a number of his team mates… or at least as comfortable as you can get when you have some obvious communication hurdles to overcome. But from all accounts I’ve read, both he and the other Twins players are making efforts to make his transition as smooth as possible.

And I know it’s just one fan’s opinion, but I think he looks much better in the uniform pants than he did in capris.

Michael Cuddyer’s wart

I was bound and determined not to even bring this up in a post, but you can’t read an article about the Twins without it being mentioned, so there you go. It’s simple really… not all warts are the same. Some are totally harmless, some are in a location that is problematic. Some go away easily. Some don’t. Michael and the Twins are doing their best to get rid of the damn thing. Hopefully, they’re successful. ‘Nuff said.

Justin Morneau’s head

This may be the issue I’m struggling with the most, in terms of trying not to be concerned. I really want to just sit back and not worry about Doc until Opening Day rolls around.  But we’re about eight months out from when he incurred his concussion and he’s obviously not yet asymptomatic.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being critical of Morneau or the Twins or their doctors. It is absolutely right that everyone concerned approach this issue conservatively. We may still not know all we’d like to about concussions, but one thing the researchers have figured out is that incurring another concussion before you’re fully recovered from your last one is bad. Bad bad. Really bad.

So, from that standpoint, I’d probably be inclined to have him stay out of competition until days… maybe even weeks… maybe even a month… after his last symptom. If we learned one thing from Joe Mauer missing the month of April a couple of years ago, it’s that missing a little time early in the season is not the worst thing that can happen.

I want to see Justin Morneau hitting the crap out of the ball in September (and maybe even October?) for a change and if it takes a little extra time in March, or even April, to assure that we get to see that… so be it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not concerned.

T-minus two weeks and counting

March 16, exactly two weeks from today, I’ll be watching the first of six Spring Training games I hope to attend on my annual trip to Florida, when the Twins host the Mets in Ft. Myers. This is going to be a long two weeks.

- JC

PROGRAMMING UPDATE: What’s that you say? Reading all this stuff and you still need MORE JimCrikket? If so, you should probably get a life, but if that’s just not realistic, consider tuning in to Fanatic Jack’s podcast tonight (Wednesday) at 9:00. Jack will be talking Twins baseball with John Bonnes (the TwinsGeek) and me. Should be a hoot. Never mind… Jack had to cancel his podcast. Everyone is spared having to listen to me!- JC

Slow News Days

For all the build up about Spring Training “reporting day”, once that day comes and goes, things kind of grind to a halt in terms of interesting stuff going on. In fact, just about the only things that pass for “news” coming out of Fort Myers is bad news… sore arms, shoulders, knees, etc. That’s what happens, I guess, when there are no games to report about.

That’s not meant to downplay the importance of the information being reported out of the Twins’ camp about Scott Baker’s elbow and Francisco Liriano’s shoudler. In fact, I think people now understand why having six experienced starting pitchers does not mean you have an “extra” starting pitcher. It may be a cliché that, “these tends to work themselves out,” but it’s a cliché because it’s true.

Francisco Liriano

Speaking of Liriano’s sore shoulder, I just have to say right now that this thing smells funny to me. A year ago, he was coming off a very successful winter ball season and everyone was wondering whether that meant we were going to finally see “the Franchise” again. Liriano didn’t play winter ball this year (a bit of rest was certainly in order), so he essentially disappeared somewhere in to Latin America and none of us (including the Twins, apparently) knows what he’s been doing.

Now he shows up to Spring Training with a sore shoulder and gets an MRI done by some doctor in Miami that nobody in the organization knows which supposedly is “clean”. What’s with that?

The Twins caught a lot of grief around Twinsville for not locking Liriano up for 3-4 years this off-season, but is it possible they had reason to be a bit suspicious about his health? Maybe, maybe not. But from what we read of GM Bill Smith’s comments that clearly indicated the Twins were not interested in doing anything but going year-to-year with Frankie, there’s obviously some reason they don’t trust their young pitching star.

I remember when Johan Santana was a Twin, there were several articles in the media written every season about Santana’s work ethic… his Spring Training routine… his offday workout routine during the season… from all reports, this was a guy who took care of his body and worked very hard to be the best pitcher he could be.

I have never read anything from any reporter that gives even a hint that anyone thinks Liriano is a hard worker. If he does anything beyond just the required bullpen sessions, I don’t recall anyone ever mentioning it.

I hope Liriano has another fantastic year, but his spring has not gotten off to a start that makes me feel optimistic.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka Arrives

Of course, there is one non-injury item that’s generating “news” this spring and that’s the arrival of Tsuyoshi Nishioka. I’m not sure what the Twins or anyone else expected to see when Nishioka arrived at camp, but if they expected him to show up, don the same Twins workout gear that everyone else wears and join his team mates on the field for their informal pre-reporting workouts, then the Twins folks have to be disappointed.

In a post immediately after the Twins signed Nishioka, I wrote, “I’m not sure any of us really are prepared for what comes next.” I think we’re starting to see a bit of what I was referring to.

The Twins agreed to provide am interpreter, but Nishioka showed up with what can only be called a posse. Media reports have him being followed around the field not only by his interpreter, but his personal trainer and a third person who’s role is somewhat of a mystery (some have suggested perhaps it’s his massage therapist). While he’s spent a bit of time taking some ground balls with team mates, most of his workouts have been alone, off on a distant field and in the bowels of the minor league batting cage area.

Once you find out where he’s working out, he’s not hard to identify, however. In a black sleeveless Addidas shirt and pants that have been described as “capris” with neon piping, rather than the navy blue Twins gear, he obviously stands out. Oh… and no Twins cap (or any cap, for that matter), either.

As Lou Brown, the fictional manager of the Indians in the “Major League” movie said, “We wear caps and sleeves at this level, son.”

Let’s just say, Nishioka’s first priority obviously is not to just blend in with his new team.

A lot has been written about the “risk” the Twins are taking by jettisoning experienced middle infielders Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy, in favor of Nishioka and Alexi Casilla. Generally, the risks referred to are related to what can reasonably be expected in terms of performance levels from the lesser known entities.

But what I’m going to pay closer attention to will be the effects of introducing an unproven potential prima donna with his own posse and a sizable media contingent whose questions will focus exclusively on that player, with little or no concern for the team’s results on the field.

A part of me thinks this organization could use a shot of personality… something to generate a bit of an edge in the clubhouse and on the field. But make no mistake, Nishioka and all that comes with him will be a distraction, the Twins have invited this distraction in to their midst, and in doing so, they’re taking a sizable risk that goes well beyond the risk of turning over their middle infield to a couple of younger ballplayers.

Other News from Florida

Finally, the lack of anything terribly compelling in terms of news about baseball has resulted in me watching a lot of racing from Daytona this weekend. Now, I’m NOT a racing fan… at all. But I was with family at a sports bar Friday night and sat with my brother-in-law, who IS a big race fan and we watched most of the truck series race that kicked off Daytona weekend.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed it. It was different watching with someone who knew what the hell was going on. I also found myself watching the Nationwide Series race on Saturday, which ended with one car beating another car by about a foot. I admit I was kind of in to it.

Today, the “real” Daytona 500 is about ready to start. I’m not sure how much of it I’ll be able to watch because I’ve got a family dinner to go to. But I find myself hoping I’ll get home in time to see a fair amount of the race.

I’m not yet sure what to make of this new-found interest, but I’m pretty sure I’ll find myself exceeding the speed limit at some point on my drive across town to dinner.

- JC

SPRING TRAINING IS FINALLY HERE!!

There are finally Twins players playing baseball!!! Yes, it’s down in Ft. Meyers so most of us don’t get to see any of it but Pitchers & Catchers officially reported today. Obviously, several have already been there and working and several of our position players are getting some early work in as well – including Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Since we don’t get to see that happen on TV for a bit yet, I thought I would give you a little video taste of his workout down there courtesy of ESPN:

But obviously, the position players will mostly get their day in the sun later. Today is all about pitchers and catchers. Of course, the one getting all the attention on the catching front is Joe Mauer. ESPN talked with him about what kind of shape his knee is in and if he’s feeling ready for spring.  He’s still treating it very gently and is pretty up front about the fact that it was never anyone’s intention to be 100% by February – he’s aiming for April 1st – but he’s still feeling pretty good.  Given his history of cautionary language, I think that is about as solid an answer we’re ever going to get from Joe on his knee.  So, I’m good with it.  But it’s still good for all of us to remember that he was actually on crutches about 2 months ago so it’s probably a wise precaution if he’s being a little less aggressive about his catching workouts early this spring yet.  I don’t think that is reason for concern if they are giving Butera and the other 7 non-roster invitee catchers some reps.

And the OTHER big question out there of course, is the other Joe!  It sounds like Joe Nathan is doing very well in his rehab – but as always the team puts on the cautiously optimistic front.  If he continues to improve at the pace he seems to be pushing himself, I do think he’ll be a legitimate contender for the closing role.  He’s highly motivated to return quickly given his age and the fact that Twins retained Matt Capps.  Do I think it’s LIKELY that this will be the case? Well, no. I think the odds are against him but people do occasionally beat the odds and Nathan always had an intensity to pitch that set him apart from others.  We’ll see what happens.

The discussion that seems to be lighting up the blogging community is at what point of improvement does Nathan have to be at for Gardy to say, “you’re the guy”? Obviously, if his return goes more on a traditional schedule, this really wouldn’t be under discussion but when he’s already throwing 40-50 pitches in an outing, he’s getting higher velocity, his location is good and in general WANTS to be the guy which shows the mental fortitude necessary to be a closer, we definitely have to talk about it.  He’s not a starter – this isn’t a guy who is going to need to pitch for 7 innings or even start the season at 5.  Joe Nathan COULD pitch two innings when necessary but we all have to admit that none of us really ever wanted to see that happen.  We want one inning of balls to the wall pitches that make opposing batters look silly.  Nathan is in a perfect position to be able to produce that if he can get that perfect location he was known for back.  Obviously, his velocity is still about 3 mph slower than his average before surgery but that may yet come along in ST AND he’s a savvy experienced pitcher who knows how to get the job done even when he doesn’t have his best stuff… if anyone could come back in a single year, it’s Nathan.

BUT

Do we want him to push it that hard and do we really think that he’ll be ready?  How ready is ready?  If Nathan is 80% of his former self at the beginning of the season, is that enough to give Matt Capps the setup role?  Especially since multiple innings and tighter scores are frequently within the domain of the 7th inning setup man. We don’t have Guerrier or Crain anymore for whom that spot always pointed to.  What about a 60% Nathan?

Honestly, I don’t know but I’m REALLY REALLY REALLY looking forward to seeing some games so I can see him throw in a real mound situation.

I’m also looking forward to seeing how much progress Pat Neshek has made.  I am giddy with hope for the return of the crazy sideshow! I am certain that our depleted bullpen would be ecstatic to have that arm back with the ability to perform that we all remember.  I’m sure that he’s itching more than anyone to have his surgery ordeal completely behind him.

EDIT: We have another post-surgery update – totally forgot about Scott Baker! Yes, things are progressing.  But he’s not quite where he wanted to be at this point of the pre-season.  In discussions with the training staff and his docs, they have actually backed off his program just a little bit because the elbow was flaring up a bit.  I think that is a wise move since he IS a starter that we would like to start the season being able to pitch MULTIPLE innings.  Funny how it works that way.  He estimates that his season-readiness is about a week behind the rest of the pitching staff.  My only issue with that is that I don’t see how someone coming back from surgery “catches up” but a week of the long baseball summer is really negligible.  It’s just sometimes hard to remember that.  Every game counts.

And of course all of this plays into who of the 6 starters currently on our roster makes the cut on opening day and who is helping the team at the back end of the game instead.

Also – in readiness for the new baseball season, I have changed our countdown to reflect the Season Opener! And you will all be wanting to see the Spring Training Schedule so that you will be able to join us for any game chats you are free for.

Yes, it’s THAT time of year again!  Knuckleballs will be return to the regularly scheduled game chat so watch for posts announcing the days selection so that you can join whoever else is taking a break from the weary dregs of MN winter to catch whatever baseball can be found.  I’m not exactly sure what the broadcasts will be but anything that is either televised or radio broadcast, we’ll try to have a chat for.  That should get us back into the habit for the regular season!

Seeing Nishioka in Action!

Obviously there is a LOT of attention being given to the Twins newest infielder, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, but Twins fans really don’t have much to SEE yet.  (If you are a Facebook user, I encourage you to go to his Fan Page). The Twins have even put out a little video heads up from the clubhouse but if you can’t wait for the televised spring training outings, here is some videos put together interviewing him on his home turf and even on the field.

Mike Pomeranz from Kare11 actually got to go to Japan to meet Nishioka and brought the video back to share with us in Minnesota. At least this should give all of us a better idea of what to expect when the boys hit Ft. Meyers!

Kare11 Interview, Part I:

Kare11 Interview, Part II:

And even a little extra attention on his new wife:

Obviously, this is just not quite the same as seeing him actually play with the rest of our team but let’s call it whetting the appetite!

When Japanese Forces Collide!

Face it, we all knew it was inevitable. The convergence of these two powerful forces means the result was simply unavoidable.

Of course, I’m referring to the arrival of Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka here in the land of Paul Bunyan, Bob Dylan, Prince, and Walter Mondale, and colliding head first with a Twins blogdom steep with a history of expression of our devotion to our team (and the very existence of the game of baseball) through another Japanese import… yes… Haiku!

(Caligraphy:Sook Humphries)

So as we begin this week, I figured we here at Knuckleballs should be among the first to celebrate the impending opening of Spring Training with a traditional Haiku welcome to Tsuyoshi. I’ve come up with a few to get everyone’s creative juices flowing, but I’m sure there are others out there who are much better at this kind of thing than I am.

Just as a reminder, Haiku poetry (or at least our Westernized version of it) follows a simple 5 syllable-7 syllable-5 syllable pattern… and if you can find a way to fit something about “seasons” or “nature” in to the poem, as well, you get extra credit for making an attempt at producing a more “authentic” Haiku.

Let’s see what we can come up with… leave your best (or even your not-so-best) efforts in the comments section. We may even add a few more to the post as time goes on.

- JC 

(Photo: MLB)

Spring Training in March.
Palm trees combine with baseball.
It won’t be long now.

Tsuyoshi’s a Twin.
Will Gardy learn Japanese…
Eat pregame sushi?

Blue skies and green grass.
Beer, dogs and brats were devoured.
Seems so long ago.

Where did he go to?
No Tiny Superhero!
Look South toward the Arch.

A tsunami here?
In Land of Lakes (not Oceans).
It’s Nishioka!

Gardy bilingual?
This should be interesting.
“How do you say ‘SH_T’!?”

Not many new names.
Will Nathan, Morneau be back?
Fan base is restless.

Bullpen: White Knights or Black Hole?

If you’ve been reading anything about the Twins’ offseason, you may have heard this already… The Twins are going to need some new relief pitchers to fill out their bullpen. Shocking, I know.

Bullpen up in the air?

Truth is, the thing I find more surprising than anything else is that so many people seem to care so much about who’s going to make up the bullpen on Opening Day. I’m not ignorant of the fact that the Twins are losing half of the strong bullpen they finished the 2010 season with. Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier are already members of other teams, with Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, Randy Flores and Ron Mahay likely to follow.

So with all of the uncertainty about who will be keeping bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek company this season, why am I surprised that so many people are devoting so much time to fretting over the makeup of the Twins’ relief corps? It’s simple really.

It matters to me that the Twins appear at least one top-of-the-rotation pitcher short at the moment. Going in to the season with the current five young starting pitchers, backed up only by unproven younger options, and relying on being able to trade for a top starter at mid season is a risky proposition. It may work out. It may not. But it matters and if they don’t have someone like Carl Pavano in the rotation that can consistently go deep in to games and give the bullpen a rest, then it matters even more.

It matters to me that the Twins are apparently comfortable with a defensive outfield that is, to be kind, less than swift. It baffles me a bit that the Twins looked at the way Target Field played in its inaugural season and recognized that they needed more contact hitters with speed on offense to take advantage of the field’s outfield gaps that tend to kill power but favor gap hitters… but didn’t also arrive at the conclusion that they should upgrade the defense with the addition of at least one more outfielder with the range to prevent opposing hitters from benefiting quite so readily from this particular stadium quirk.

It matters to me that the Twins will once again start the season with a new middle infield combination. I happen to be more of an optimist with regard to Alexi Casilla than many are and, while I’m on record as having preferred that the Twins hang on to JJ Hardy, I believe there’s been far more gnashing of teeth over his departure than is warranted. I suspect Tsuyoshi Nishioka will do just fine offensively and defensively… and is much more likely to bring stability to the middle infield for the next few seasons than either Hardy or Orlando Hudson would have. But regardless, yes, this new middle infield combination matters to me.

It WOULD matter to me if the Twins had nobody returning with a history of providing adequate performance at the back end of the bullpen. But while they won’t start the season with as many proven late inning options as they had at the end of 2010, the combination of Joe Nathan, Matt Capps and (to a somewhat lesser degree) Jose Mijares has demonstrated in the past that they are capable of getting a few outs toward the end of a ballgame. Even though Nathan’s healthy return to pre-injury status is not guaranteed and that, as is the case with Lexi, I’m a bigger fan of Matt Capps than most of Twinsville seems to be, I can’t honestly say I’d be a whole lot more comfortable with late inning options if any of the departing arms were still around. Some people act like Crain, Rauch, Guerrier and Fuentes never coughed up a game in their careers.

There are four open spots in the 2011 bullpen. All are long relief and middle inning positions. Who will fill those spots? I’m sorry… but I can do no better than turn to the wisdom of Bill Murray for a response. In his first leading role in the 1979 “classic” film, Meatballs, Murray captured my feelings perfectly when he said (repeatedly)… “It just doesn’t matter!… it just doesn’t matter!…”.

Will Glen Perkins or Alex Burnett or Jeff Manship or Rob Delaney be the long relief options… or will one of the current five starting pitchers get bumped to the pen if Pavano re-signs? Who cares? It just doesn’t matter! They’re going to be used when the starting pitcher gets shelled in the first three innings of a game the Twins are highly unlikely to come back and win anyway.

Who’s going to bridge the gap between a starting pitcher who labors through four or five innings and the set-up guys during a game that the offense is managing to keep close? Will it be Pat Neshek, Scott Diamond, Jim Hoey, or some free agent yet to be signed? I don’t know and it just doesn’t matter! Regardless of who fills those spots, I can guarantee you that sometimes they are going to pitch well and sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they will get lucky and sometimes they won’t. If they pitch poorly or are unlucky too often early in the season, one of the other candidates will be plugged in and get his shot. But, as Ed Thoma pointed out this week on his Baseball Outsider blog, it’s not like Gardy and Rick Anderson have never had to build a bullpen before.

Still… since so many people see the bullpen as an issue to get riled up about (and because I’m devoting 1,000 words or so to the topic here), I feel compelled to come up with at least one suggestion for the Twins to consider. So here it is.

Hiroyuki Kobayashi

Never heard of him? That’s OK.

Hiroyuki Kobayashi

Kobayashi is a Japanese free agent (which means he’s available to sign without having to go through the posting process), was a team mate of Nishioka’s with the Chiba Lotte Marines and does have some international experience as a member of the Japanese national team. After a few mediocre seasons as a starting pitcher under the Marines’ former manager, Bobby Valentine, Kobayashi was moved by Valentine’s replacement in to the closer role in 2010 and apparently performed well enough to help Chiba win the Japanese championship.

Reports are that he doesn’t throw extremely hard (fastball runs 89-91 mph) but mixes in several other pitches effectively enough to miss bats consistently (striking out around 8 hitters per 9 nine innings in his career).

Some people have lamented the Twins not being aggressive about signing Hideki Okajima or some other Japenese relief pitcher to perhaps minimize the cultural shock Nishioka is inevitably going to face next season. What better way to do that than to bring in one of his team mates?

Gotta be more important stuff, right?

That’s enough from me today. Now we can turn our attention to more important stuff… I’m not sure what that might be, but there has to be SOMETHING more important than finding out who gets the duty of carrying the backpack of goodies to the bullpen this season.

- JC

ようこそ (Welcome) Tsuyoshi Nishioka!

NOTE: A funny thing happened when we posted our article about the prospect of the Twins replacing JJ Hardy with Tsuyoshi Nishioka a couple of weeks ago. Our sitemeter started recording “hits” from Japan. So with this, our official “Welcome” post for the newest Minnesota Twin, we thought we’d give one of those fancy online Translator programs a try. We only hope we don’t end up accidentally starting some kind of international incident.

注: する面白いことは私たちの記事、双子の見通しについて JJ ハーディ剛西岡と交換数週間前投稿起こった。私たちの sitemeter から日本」のヒットを記録開始。これにより、最新のミネソタ州ツインにようこそ私たち公式を投稿するので、私たち派手なオンライン翻訳プログラムのいずれかを試してみてくださいと思った。私たちはない終了何らかの国際的な事件を誤って開始希望だけ。

Tsuyoshi Nishioka and wife Naoko

It’s official! Tsuyoshi Nishioka is a Minnesota Twin. The Twins have come to an agreement on a contract with the Japanese infielder which will reportedly pay Nishioka $9 million over the next three seasons. When you factor in the posting bid price that the Twins paid to Nishioka’s NBP team, the Chiba Lotte Marines, the total cost to the Twins will be somewhere close to $15 million over the next three years.

公式です !西岡剛ミネソタ州ツインです。ツインズ合意する契約上の報道によれば西岡 900万ドル、次の 3 つの季節を支払うことになるが、日本の内野手が出ています。西岡の NBP チーム、千葉ロッテマリーンズの双子を支払った転記の入札価格を考慮すると、コスト、双生児にはどこか 1500万ドル近くに、今後 3 年間になります。

That’s a fair price. It’s certainly not an amount of money that will break the bank or keep the Twins from also signing other players. But yet, it’s fair to ask, “What should the Twins expect for their money?” For such a seemingly simple question, there really can be nothing but a complicated answer.

公正な価格です。それは確か、銀行を破るか、また他のプレイヤーの署名から、双子を維持する金額ではありません。まだ、依頼するには、「何、双子のお金を期待すべきですか?」公正なのですがこのような一見単純な質問には、本当にあることは何も複雑な答えです。

The Twins are hopeful that Nishioka will provide reliable defense at one of the middle infielder positions and, while he’s not expected to hit for much power, hopes are that he’ll get on base well enough to fill the number two spot in the batting order and provide more speed than the team got out of that spot last season. Those are not unreasonable expectations and if the Twins had signed some kind of American free agent infielder with similar skill sets, this is where we could probably end the discussion of expectations. But make no mistake, this is not just another baseball player changing teams.

双 子は西岡中央内野手位置のいずれかで信頼性の高い防衛を提供しては彼は多くの電力をヒットするがありませんが、期待している彼は基本の井戸に番号 2 つのスポットで打順を記入し、チーム、スポットの最後のシーズンがよりもより多くの処理速度を向上するのに十分な買ってあげることは期待しています。不当な期待いないあり、ツインズ何らかのアメリカの自由契約内野手と同様のスキルと締結した場合は、これは、議論の期待おそらくを終了できませんでした。しかし、間違いを犯す、チームの変更は別の野球選手ではありません。

I don’t know if the Twins organization thought through what it would mean to sign the defending Nippon Baseball Pacific League batting champion and bring him to Minnesota, but I hope everyone is ready for what happens next.

私はリーグ チャンピオンのバッティング防衛、日本野球太平洋に署名し、彼はミネソタ州には、持参するどういうことをツインズ組織を考えたが、私は誰もが次のことを準備がほしいかどうかは知らない。

Ron Gardenhire may be looking for someone with speed to fill an infield spot. Bill Smith may be looking for a young player he could sign to a reasonable multiple year salary. The Minnesota news media may be happy to have something new to write about concerning the Twins, who’s roster of key contributors has been comprised of rather bland personalities for a while now. Fans of the “baseball purist” variety are largely just anxious to see some indication that the Twins organization recognizes the team needs to make improvments. The casual fans probably won’t even figure out that the Twins have a new infielder until March when they start paying attention again. Each of these groups may or may not get what they’re hoping for. But I have a feeling we’re all going to get much, much more.

ロン Gardenhire 速度、内野スポットを埋めるために誰かを探している場合があります。ビル ・ スミスが探している若い選手の彼は、合理的に複数年の給与署名できませんでした。ミネソタ ・ ニュース ・ メディア何か新しい、双生児に関するについて書くことに満足していることがあります人の主要な貢献者の名簿されているのではなく当たり障りのない性格をしばらく今で構成します。「野球純粋主義者」さまざまのファン大部分はツインズ組織、チームを認識することを示す必要がある improvments を確認することを切望います。カジュアルなファンおそらくも、双子の 3 月までには再び注目起動時新しい内野手があることが理解されません。これらのグループと彼らが何を期待しているを得ることができません。私たちすべては、多くの詳細を取得するつもりを感じています。

I’m not sure any of us really are prepared for what comes next.

私たちは本当に次なるの準備ができていることがよく分かりません。

I’ve been trying to think of an analogy but I really can’t come up with one. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like what’s coming our way. Ever. We’re talking about a Japanese iconic rock star in cleats coming soon to a baseball field… and a clubhouse… near you!

私の類推と思うしようとしているが、私は本当に片手を来ることができません。私たち私たちのように来ているもののように何も見たことがあるとは思わない。これまで。私たちは日本の象徴の岩について星クリートは野球場を… と、クラブハウスの… あなたの近くにもうすぐに話をしている !

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Nishioka had signed with any number of other Major League teams. He’d be just another target of the paparazzi in New York or Boston or even Los Angeles. Seattle has already been down this road before with Ichiro, so another talented Japanese import wouldn’t really change that organization’s profile much.

西岡を任意の数の他のメジャーリーグのチームと締結した場合はこのような大げさではないです。彼は、ボストン、ニューヨークやロサンゼルスでもパパラッチは別のターゲットとなります。別の才能のある日本の輸入は本当にその組織のプロファイルに変更はないのでシアトルは既にこの道の前に一郎とされています。

But the Minnesota Twins? This is a team owned by a family of bankers, run by essentially the same group of businessmen for decades, and managed on the field by “old school” managers and coaches since, well, forever. And this is a group of players that seem to think breaking the seal on a new deck of cards constitutes “clubhouse excitement.” Man, are they in for a surprise.

ミネソタ ・ ツインズですか?これは、銀行の家族が所有、ビジネスマンの同じグループでは、基本的に数十年間は、実行され、フィールドに昔の学校のマネージャーやコーチ以来、まあ、永遠に管理チームです。これは、シール、新しいカードのデッキで破壊クラブハウスの興奮構成を考えているようだ選手のグループです。男は、彼らには驚きです。

All I can say is, “it’s about time!”

すべて私に言えることは、「についての時間です !」

I don’t know what to expect from the Twins in 2011. There are too many question marks. Will Joe Nathan come back healthy enough to contribute at the back end of the bullpen? Will Justin Morneau return from his concussion and reestablish himself among the best hitters in the Major Leagues? Will Joe Mauer perform like a player worth $23 million a year instead of the mere mortal he proved himself to be this season? Will the rotation hold up? I’m anxious to see how all that works out.

私は、双生児から 2011 年に期待するのか分からない。あまりにも多くの疑問符があります。ジョー ネイサンは、ブルペンのバックエンドでの貢献を十分に良好になるでしょうか。ジャスティン Morneau 彼から脳震盪を返すされ自身メジャー リーグの中で最高の打者を再設定ですか?ジョー マウアー、プレーヤーは、単なるのではなく年間 300万ドル価値がのように実行する死を免れない彼自身このシーズンに証明ですか?回転が保持されますか。確認することが心配は、すべての作品をどのようにします。

But not nearly as anxious as I am to see how everyone directly or indirectly involved with the Twins… from fans to players to media… adjusts to the Japanese tsunami that’s about to wash over the organization. Personally, I think this team has needed some kind of spark… a shot in the arm… or a kick in the ass… something… for a long time. All of this “even keel” stuff is boring me and I think it’s boring a lot of other fans, too. The Twins opened up a brand new stadium last year and I managed to attend something close to a dozen games during the course of the season. I saw them play good teams and bad… from the Yankees and Rangers to the Orioles. Fans showed up in record numbers and clearly had a good time… but I never really felt the crowd was EXCITED by what they were seeing on the field.

ほどと不安としてどのよう直接または間接的にファンから… ツインズ… メディア プレーヤーに関係者全員を参照してください私については、日本の津波に調整されますが、組織で洗浄します。個人的には、このチームがいくつか必要があると思うのような… ショットで arm…. または、キック、お尻を… の引き金と長い時間を… 何か。すべての「平衡」ものです私あまりにも多くの他のファンの退屈なですと思う退屈。ブランドの新しいスタジアムを昨年、双子を開くし、私は、1 ダースのゲームに近いもの、シーズン中に出席することができた。私は遊びの良いチームと、ヤンキースとレンジャーズから… 悪い、オリオールズを見た。ファンのレコード番号に現われたし、はっきり、… 楽しかったが私は決して実際に群衆何彼らにフィールドを見ていたが興奮していた感じ。

I don’t know if a change among of middle infielders is enough to get the Twins to the World Series. It seems unlikely. But I think it’s time for us to get past the debating about whether the Twins were right or wrong to trade away JJ Hardy. The past is past. It’s time to look forward and if this Japanese comet that’s about to land among us can bring some fun and excitement to Target Field in 2011 and beyond, then I can’t wait to be there when it happens!

中央 infielders の間で変更を十分にワールドシリーズ、双子を取得するかどうか分からない。可能性は低いようです。しかし、ツインズ右または間違って離れ JJ 丈夫な取引をしたかどうかについて議論過去を取得するための時間だと思います。過去は過去のことです。時間は楽しみにして、この日本の彗星に関することなら土地私たちの間でいくつかの楽しさと興奮 Target フィールドに 2011 年内外させることができ、私はそれが起こるときがあるが待ちきれない !

Let’s all get on board and start practicing now…

すべて基板上に取得させて今練習を開始しています

SUUUUUUUUUU YOOOOOOOOOOO SHEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

- JC