MINNEAPOLIS | Veteran right-hander Hideo Nomo completed his long-shot odyssey to return to the big leagues Saturday morning when the Royals purchased his contract from short-season Idaho Falls.
The club made the move after determining Nomo, 39, was sufficiently recovered from a strained right groin that derailed his roster bid late in spring training.
The roster spot became available after the Royals optioned rookie catcher Matt Tupman to Class AAA Omaha. Tupman became expendable when Miguel Olivo returned from a four-game suspension stemming from an on-field fight last September while a member of the Florida Marlins.
Nomo arrived late Friday and was in uniform for Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Twins at the Metrodome. He will serve as a reliever for the first time his professional career.
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The Royals switched Nomo to the bullpen in spring training after other pitchers emerged as better candidates for the rotation. They particularly liked his ability to get strikeouts: 17 in 15 spring innings.
“Has he shown he had major-league abilities?” manager Trey Hillman said. “Yes. He missed bats very effectively. He commanded the fastball. He mixed in a slider, and the split is still there.”
Nomo is baseball’s all-time leader in numerous career pitching categories among Japanese-born players. He is 123-109 with a 4.21 ERA in 320 games 11 seasons with six different clubs. He has two career no-hitters and was twice a league strikeout champion.
But Nomo hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2005, when he went 5-8 with a 7.24 ERA in 19 starts for Tampa Bay.
He underwent elbow surgery in 2006 and didn’t pitch last year before attempting to resurrect his career this winter by making seven starts for Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League.
The results weren’t particularly encouraging: 10 runs and 18 hits 13 2/3 innings.
Even so, the Royals took a chance despite not scouting him in Venezuela. They signed him to a minor-league contract on Jan. 9 that included an invitation to big-league camp.
“Two reasons,” general manager Dayton Moore explained earlier this spring. “You never discount somebody who has had so much success in the major leagues and still has the desire to do it. You can’t count those types of athletes out. Nomo is certainly one of those guys.
“Secondly, there’s the transition of (Japanese free-agent Yasuhiko) Yabuta. I think it’s a natural fit.”
Nomo arrived out of shape but quickly established himself as a legitimate roster candidate. He appeared poised to win a bullpen job until he suffered a strained groin in a March 25 game against the Padres in Peoria, Ariz.
He remained with the big-league club through its spring-ending trip last weekend to Milwaukee before returning to Surprise, Ariz., in order to recuperate in the Arizona heat.
The Royals, in a technical move, assigned Nomo to the Idaho Falls roster. That meant he didn’t take a space away from someone on the organization’s four full-season affiliates.
Nomo’s recovery went well. He experienced no problems Thursday in a 44-pitch throwing session that included 15 pitches against hitters. He also played catch Friday as a final test.
That led Hillman to believe Nomo was ready for game action.
“He didn’t feel (pain in) the groin at all,” Hillman said. “The report was the arm worked very well.”