Kenta Maeda Mania? It may be a necessity for Dodgers – USA TODAY

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LOS ANGELES – Kenta Maeda nervously waited for just the right moment during the Miami Marlins warm-ups, sprinted across the Dodger Stadium diamond and introduced himself to Ichiro Suzuki, respectfully bowing to the countryman he had idolized since he was a kid.

The scene before the Marlins-Los Angeles Dodgers series opener presented quite a turnabout. This season it has been the hitters bowing to Maeda.

The rookie right-hander from Japan has been spectacular in filling the void left in the Dodgers rotation by Zack Greinke’s departure, tying a record by allowing one run in the first four starts of his career (covering 251/3 innings) for a National League-leading 0.36 ERA.

In the town that gave birth to Fernandomania in 1981 and Nomomania 14 years later, a similar phenomenon could be afoot if Maeda continues to baffle major league hitters. His early success has been the source of front-page headlines back home, with about 25 Japanese reporters expected to cover Maeda’s start Thursday against the Marlins.

“You can’t compare it to Fernandomania, and it’s a bit early yet,” said Pepe Iniguez, a Dodgers announcer since 1992 and the broadcast partner of the original subject of all the buzz, Fernando Valenzuela. “But if he kept up his pace all the way to the All-Star Game, it would give rise to a Kentamania or Maedamania.”

Perhaps MaeKenmania, playing off the nickname he goes by in Japan, where the surname is placed first. It would come with its own YouTube-ready set of moves, since Maeda’s pregame exercises — a rapid-fire rotation of his arms meant to loosen the shoulders — have inspired imitations known in his homeland as the MaeKen dance. It’s not dance hall material, but fun to do at the ballpark.

Maeda, 28, doesn’t overpower hitters with his 90-mph fastball, but he keeps them off-balance by mixing a slider he throws at two different speeds — 84 mph to right-handers, 80 mph to lefties — with a changeup and curveball that have been better than the Dodgers expected.

When he made his first start at Coors Field, the notorious hitter-friendly paradise where off-speed pitches flatten out, Maeda pitched five hitless innings Saturday, conjuring memories of the only no-hitter in the ballpark’s history, by countryman Hideo Nomo in September 1996.

Maeda settled for 61/3 innings of three-hit, scoreless ball in notching his third victory without a loss. The impressive performance allayed any concerns about how he would react to the adverse conditions.

“There were times where he threw a breaking ball that didn’t do what he expected, but then you saw him actually make an adjustment and come back and throw a breaking ball that had teeth to it,” says Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers president of baseball operations. “His ability to adapt on the fly has been really, really good.”

In baseball and beyond. Maeda doesn’t have much command of the English language but has picked up enough baseball terms to communicate with catchers A.J. Ellis and Yasmani Grandal. In pregame meetings they rely on interpreter Will Ireton.

Maeda calls Los Angeles very livable — perhaps he doesn’t drive — and appreciates the city’s cuisine, weather and substantial Asian presence. Despite the language barrier, he has made an effort to display his engaging personality, — Japanese reporters swear by his sense of humor — and during spring training he handed out small presents to some of his teammates.

“They’re small gestures that go a long way,” Grandal said.

The cultural adjustment, which for some foreign players can prove more difficult than adapting to the higher level of competition, has come along fairly smoothly.

“I’m enjoying it more than I initially thought,” Maeda said through Ireton of the move to America. “And the lifestyle, too, outside of baseball. It has made for an easier transition.”

After eight years with the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese league — where he twice won the Cy Young Award equivalent, known as the Sawamura — Maeda prepared for the challenge by consulting with Japanese major leaguers.

He also worked out with the MLB ball, which is bigger and slicker than what he was used to, and got early exposure to the Dodger Stadium mound. More than anything, though, he kept an open mind.

“Instead of coming over here and being surprised by the differences, I took the attitude that of course it’s going to be a different game and I need to accept those differences,” he said. “I didn’t want to overthink them.”

Maeda has proved the perfect complement to three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, who lost his co-ace when Greinke left to take the Arizona Diamondbacks’ six-year, $206.5 million offer.

The inability to retain Greinke, the major league leader in ERA last season at 1.66, created much consternation among Dodgers fans, who saw the signings of lefty Scott Kazmir (three years, $48 million) and Maeda (guaranteed $25 million over eight years, with incentives that could add another $87 million) as cheap alternatives.

Maeda’s contract drew particular attention because it was so team-friendly, putting all the onus on him to perform and stay healthy, after a physical revealed irregularities in his elbow. That diminished Maeda’s leverage, as did his strong preference for signing with the Dodgers.

“It was an unusual circumstance, so it was an unusual negotiation as a result,” said Friedman, whose club also put up a $20 million posting fee. “I think it’s the first negotiation I’ve ever been a part of where we were arguing for more years and the agent was arguing for less years.”

Maeda was initially expected to command a much larger guarantee, but after excelling in the 2013 World Baseball Classic (one earned run in 15 innings) and noticing compatriots such as the New York Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka performing well in the USA, he was determined to make the jump regardless.

“My desire to play in the majors was really strong. There are lots of incentives that can work in my favor. I’m intent on performing well, and the incentives will encourage me to do that.”

Suzuki, destined to become the first Japanese-born player in the Hall of Fame, has been the country’s symbolic flagbearer in the major leagues. It’s a heavy burden to bear, and he thinks there’s little he can tell Maeda about that duty, because their circumstances are different. But Suzuki was impressed by the pitcher’s initiative to approach him.

“It takes a lot of courage for him to do that,” said Suzuki, a reserve outfielder who is 57hits short of the 3,000 mark. “It shows he has a good head on his shoulders.”

He’ll need it to weather the more difficult times he’s likely to encounter. Maeda says he didn’t expect such overwhelming early success, and he realizes the advantage pitchers enjoy when batters see them for the first time will soon vanish.

Thursday night, he’ll have his work cut out to match Valenzuela, who posted a 0.20 ERA in his first five major league starts, and soon became an indelible part of franchise lore.

Maeda is pitching in a different era. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said the edge afforded a new pitcher doesn’t last as long as it used to because of the prevalence of video to scout players. Still, he’s confident Maeda will continue to fool hitters.

“There’s something certainly to the novelty or the unfamiliarity, but there’s even more credit to the execution,” Roberts said. “The second time more guys see him and study him, they’re going to be more familiar without a doubt. But I do believe Kenta will continue to execute.”

Kenta Maeda Mania? It may be a necessity for Dodgers – USA TODAY

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