Commentary

Red Sox survive shaky outing from Dice-K to win opener

Originally Published: March 25, 2008
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

TOKYO -- If butterflies the size of Mothra fluttered inside Daisuke Matsuzaka's gut Tuesday, it would be understandable.

After all, he was only the Opening Day starter for the defending world champions. And he was pitching in his hometown. And he was returning for the first time to his native country, where he has been a national hero since high school and where there is a museum dedicated solely to him and where photographers have shadowed his every public step this trip. (Safety reminder: Do not place body in front of Japanese photographers pursuing Dice-K.)

Plus, he was pitching for the Red Sox, whose fans can be, shall we say, a little expectant. After all, they now have gone 149 long days since they last won the World Series. That's nearly three years in dog years. Man, how those fans have suffered.

[+] EnlargeDaisuke Matsuzaka
Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty ImagesDaisuke Matsuzaka pitched five innings and threw 95 pitches, just 51 for strikes.
Small wonder then that Matsuzaka nearly reached his pitch limit during the national anthems (American and Japanese) of Tuesday's season-opening game between the Red Sox and Athletics at the Tokyo Dome. Matsuzaka threw 59 pitches in the first two innings before settling down and leaving the game with the lead in the sixth inning of Boston's eventual 6-5, 10-inning victory. After first saying he wasn't that anxious at the start of the game, Matsuzaka acknowledged he felt a little nervous.

"I would like to apologize to all the fans who turned up and wanted to see me go deep into the game,'' Matsuzaka said though an interpreter. "I tried arguing with [manager Terry Francona] to pitch longer, but ultimately, the result was my responsibility. I do want to limit my pitches and get deeper into the game, and that's something fans are expecting, as well. And I'll continue to work on it.''

"I think it's human nature to have felt that sort of anticipation,'' Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said. "It was his first time back in his home country, and I think we saw that the first couple innings.''

Manny Ramirez, meanwhile, had no nerve issues. Boston, the Dominican Republic, Japan … it doesn't matter where the game is played or what is at stake because this is Manny's world and the rest of us are just living in it. Ramirez doubled home two runs to tie the game in the sixth inning, then doubled home two more in the 10th to give the Red Sox a 6-4 lead.

Ramirez received the game's MVP award for his performance, as well as a giant golf tournament-style check for $1 million yen (just less than $10,000) in a postgame ceremony. "That's going to be some gas money,'' Ramirez said. "I love it.''

Life must be nice when you consider $10,000 mere gas money. Then again, what with rising oil prices and the falling dollar, we all might be considering $10,000 the same way before too long.

Manny also received a Ricoh color printer from the game's official sponsor, which -- just a guess here -- probably will not wind up prominently displayed in his trophy case. The superbly named Fighting Spirit award, meanwhile, went to Hideki Okajima, who pitched a scoreless ninth inning to become the first Japanese pitcher to win a major league game in Japan. So the local fans were happy about that, even if they were disappointed Matsuzaka didn't earn the victory when baseball opened its season in Japan for the third time.

The Red Sox talk about expecting Matsuzaka to make important adjustments after his first season in the league -- as Josh Beckett did last year -- and become the dominating pitcher in whom they invested more than $100 million. But to do so, he needs to cut down on his pitches and get deeper into games. He did not do that Tuesday. In the sort of March appearance that usually is followed by the pitcher running laps across the outfield in his underwear, Matsuzaka walked five batters, hit another, gave up a home run and allowed eight baserunners in the first three innings. He finished with 95 pitches and six strikeouts.

[+] EnlargeManny Ramirez
Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty ImagesManny Ramirez saved the day for the Red Sox by driving in four of their six runs.
"So often we see him go 0-2 on a batter, and before we know it, it's 3-2,'' Farrell said. "That takes away any chance to go seven or eight innings. I know he values the strikeout a lot but, the tradeoff to that is excess pitches.''

In other words, what Dice-K needs most is Crash Davis to tell him that strikeouts are fascist and ground balls are democratic.

"Those are things we talked about last year, throughout the offseason and throughout spring training,'' Farrell said. "Tonight it was just a matter of, given the setting, him being able to relax and trust his stuff rather than thinking he had to be perfect in front of the home crowd. He doesn't have to be on the black on the edge of the plate with every pitch. He has such an assortment of pitches, he has many ways to get batters out. He has a tendency to think strikeout too often.''

Despite the wildness, Dice-K somehow allowed only two runs. After Farrell spoke to him following a walk that loaded the bases in the second, Matsuzaka retired 10 of the next 11 batters and made it through five innings. Boston then scored three runs in the top of the sixth to put Matsuzaka in position for the victory. But the lead lasted only a few minutes, since Oakland's Jack Hannahan hit a two-run homer off reliever Kyle Snyder in the bottom of the sixth.

Brandon Moss, a last-second replacement for right fielder J.D. Drew (sore back), tied the game at 4-4 with his first career home run, off Oakland closer Huston Street, with one out in the ninth. And Ramirez doubled home the eventual winning runs in the 10th, much to the delight of the many Boston fans in attendance. Although the two games of this series are officially Oakland home games, the Tokyo Dome was filled with fans in Red Sox jerseys, and they celebrated to the familiar tunes of "Sweet Caroline'' and "Shipping Up to Boston,'' which were played at their customary moments.

"Even before the game, it was apparent there were more Red Sox fans in the stands,'' Matsuzaka said. "I'm sure they all wanted to see me pitch well and deep into the game.

"As for my performance personally, I guess we'll have to wait until next time.''

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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