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Updated: February 23rd, 2012 8:51am
Tsuyoshi Nishioka understands there is a lot riding on this season

Tsuyoshi Nishioka understands there is a lot riding on this season

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- At this time in 2011, Minnesota Twins middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka's every move was being followed by no fewer than a dozen Japanese media members in Florida, and sometimes upwards of two dozen.

On Thursday, one day before full-squad workouts begin, the Japanese media name plates sat entirely vacant in the Hammond Stadium press box.

Zero Japanese media members.

That's what happens when a player goes from winning the Japanese batting title and signing a $9.25 million contract to hitting .226/.278/.249 with only five extra-base hits and some of the worst defense of any middle infielder in Major League Baseball, according to various range metrics.

Now Nishioka comes to spring training just trying to earn a roster spot as a backup infielder.

"It was kind of my own decision to come to the major leagues and challenge (last season)," Nishioka said Thursday through his interpreter, Ryo Shinkawa. "It definitely was a tough season. ...

"That's why I came back to challenge this year again. If I don't put up the numbers this year, it might be better to throw it all out."

Now, when Nishioka says, "it might be better to throw it all out," it's possible something was lost in translation. When asked for extra clarification, Nishioka -- through his interpreter -- said, "There's no deep meaning to it."

But we can all read between the lines. Even though Nishioka, 27, has two years and $6 million left on the three-year contract he signed, there's a lot riding on this season if he wants a future in the major leagues.

General manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire have mostly avoided the subject so far, but Nishioka does have minor league options. If he struggles in spring training, the Twins could start him off at Triple-A Rochester -- something Nishioka says he's "not thinking about that at this point."

It's also worth noting Nishioka didn't look like the same player the Twins saw in spring training last year after he broke his leg in April. He appeared to lose speed and confidence, and opposing pitchers frequently overmatched him with fastballs.

"I definitely don't want to make the injury the reason that I wasn't able to put up numbers," he said, "but I definitely think I could have had a better season without the injury."

This offseason, Nishioka said he worked mostly on lower-body and core strength, adding that his offseason -- despite a marriage separation -- was much less frantic.

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

Asked if he feels more comfortable overall, Nishioka said, "Definitely, knowing my teammates and knowing how to get around Fort Myers, and especially going back to Minnesota as well, and on the road I'll know what restaurants to go to and don't have to think about where to go."

Of course, going back to Minnesota isn't a guarantee.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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