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Another stop on All-Star circuit for Powell

by Rob Smaal

Jeremy Powell took the mound Saturday for the Pacific Leaguers in the second installment of the 2002 All-Star Series, it marked the first time in 41 years that a foreign pitcher from the Kintetsu Buffaloes had taken part in Japan’s annual midsummer classic.

“I did not know that,” Powell said Friday afternoon, doing his best impression of former TV talk show host Johnny Carson.

“It just makes the honor that much better for me, it really does,” added Powell when told he’d be the first foreign Kintestu hurler in a Japanese baseball All-Star Game since Glenn Mickens appeared in the 1960 and ’61 editions.

Powell, a 26-year-old right-hander from California in his second year here in Japan, has a 9-5 record heading into the All-Star break. His nine wins are tied for tops in the PL (with Nippon Ham’s Carlos Mirabal) and his two shutouts are best in the league. He leads his team in wins, complete games (three), innings pitched (119 1/3), shutouts and ERA among starters (3.32). Opponents are hitting just .245 off Powell and he has averaged 7.23 strikeouts per nine innings.

Powell almost had his 10th win last Wednesday, but Nippon Ham’s Sherman Obando took him deep in the bottom of the ninth in a tough 2-1 loss.

“I’ve really just had a chance to get comfortable here this year,” said Powell, who joined the Buffs midway through last season. “For two months I’ve been able to get some run support and pitch well and get on kind of a roll. I’m just kind of riding the wave and living it up. It’s an exciting time and it’s really just a big honor for me to be able to play in this game.”

Powell, who at 6-foot-5 (195 cm) and 230 pounds (104 kg) is built more like a tight end than a pitcher, is one of three players the Buffaloes brought over last season at the urging of special adviser Tommy Lasorda, fellow-pitcher Sean Bergman and infielder Shawn Gilbert being the others.

“I was in Triple-A last year (with Portland in the San Diego Padres system) and I was having a real good season when out of the blue my agent called me during a road trip,” Powell explains. “It all just happened so fast. I had never met Tommy Lasorda before in my life. I don’t know how they found me or what, but I just jumped all over the opportunity to come over here and play baseball and experience a new life. It was a real shock that it happened so fast . . . the next day I was gone and that was it.”

With big swingers Tuffy Rhodes and Norihiro Nakamura providing much of the offense, Kintetsu claimed its first Pacific League crown in a dozen years last season before succumbing to the Yakult Swallows in five games in the Japan Series. Currently, the Buffaloes are in second place in the Pacific loop, six games behind Seibu.

Powell, who was drafted by the Expos out of high school in the fourth round in 1994, spent three seasons in the Montreal system. In 35 games with the Expos from 1998-2000, the big righty compiled a 5-16 record and had an ERA of 5.84. After the 2000 season, Powell was signed as a free agent by the Padres, who sent him down to Triple-A just prior to the start of the season.

Powell mixes a 140-kph fastball with an effective curveball and says he “tries to stay as aggressive as I can and keep the hitters off balance.”

So far, it’s been working.

And while Powell says this season “has been a great experience” and that he would like to stay here “as long as I can,” it wasn’t always that way.

“Last year, I probably wouldn’t have said that because it was still an adjustment period. I’ve been able to adjust to the culture, the game, the way they go about their business and how they prepare.”

One guy Powell credits for helping with the transition is teammate and Japan veteran Rhodes, who does more than just help his pitchers on the scoreboard.

“Without him, my life would have been a lot harder,” explains Powell. “Last year, he was kind of my savior, and the for other (new) guys too. He’s been here a few years and he knows the system. Whenever we had a problem, we’d go to him. He did an awesome job of helping us adjust. He really understands the life here and the culture. He’s been great, he really has.”

While things never really panned out for Powell at the major-league level, he has been successful in nearly every other league he has played in. In fact, Powell is an old hand at All-Star Games, having played in them in Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A, and even in Puerto Rico.

With Japan now out of the way, could the MLB version be next?

Not for a while, anyway.

“I told my wife this is where I want to play,” Powell says as he looks down the road. “I’ll be honest with you; Japan is a great place to play ball.”