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Pirates' Kuwata out 4-6 weeks with badly sprained ankle

| Wednesday, March 28, 2007

BRADENTON, Fla. — Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Masumi Kuwata can't throw for 4-to-6 weeks after badly spraining his right ankle, an injury that possibly occurred because of the former Japanese star's unfamiliarity with the peculiarities of spring training baseball.

The 38-year-old Kuwata, one of the best-known pitchers in Japanese baseball history, was hurt Monday when he ran nearly full speed into umpire Wally Bell while backing up a throw to third base against Toronto. The 260-pound Bell, part of a three-man umpiring crew, was headed toward third in anticipation of a possible call.

Kuwata was diagnosed with a grade three sprain, the most severe, and an MRI test Tuesday revealed no further damage. He will be on crutches for seven to 10 days, and it is uncertain when he can pitch again in a game. Walking gingerly on crutches through the Pirates' clubhouse, his ankle in a bulky cast on his way to the hospital, Kuwata was asked Tuesday how he felt.

"Not OK," he said, managing to smile.

The 5-foot-10, 187-pound Kuwata, accustomed to pitching only in games with four umpires, no doubt wasn't expecting an umpire to be in his way as he ran from the mound to third base. There were supposed to be four umpires on the Blue Jays-Pirates game, but umpire Tom Hallion's mother died and he was unable to work the game.

Kuwata left the field in a golf cart before being taken to a hospital for X-rays. The Pirates initially feared he may have fractured the ankle, but the MRI tests did not reveal any break. The MRI exam could not be done until Tuesday because Kuwata's ankle was so badly swollen.

The right-hander signed a minor league contract with Pittsburgh — he also was contacted by the Red Sox and Dodgers — for the opportunity to possibly pitch in the majors before his career ends. He won 173 games from 1986-2006 for Japan's best-known team, the Yomiuri Giants, and is a former league MVP and pitcher of the year winner.

Troubled by injuries, he has only nine victories the last four seasons and was sent to Japan's minor leagues last season after injuring an ankle. Until the Giants let him go after last season, Kuwata had been contractually bound to them for his entire career and had been unable to get a release so he could pitch in the majors.

His former Yomiuri Giants teammate, one-time major leaguer Bill Gullickson, is one reason that Kuwata never gave u hope of pitching in the big leagues. Gullickson, who pitched in Japan in the late 1980s, told Kuwata of his big league experiences — and, when Kuwata pitched in an exhibition game earlier this month, Gullickson drove from the other side of Florida to watch him pitch.

The Pirates' plan was for Kuwata to settle in with Triple-A Indianapolis and, if he was successful there, to be promoted to Pittsburgh sometime during the season. Pirates manager Jim Tracy has been impressed with Kuwata's professionalism and said he has been a positive influence on the team's younger pitchers with his strong work ethic and training regimen.

Kuwata has two walks and four strikeouts in 6 2-3 innings in five games this spring. He also was sidelined for about 10 days with a left ankle injury.

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