Hernandez outshines Matsuzaka on Fenway stage

Dice-K-Ichiro was Wednesday's main event at Fenway Park, but Felix Hernandez forcefully put his stamp on last night's game in a big way.

Originally Published: April 11, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- Daisuke Matsuzaka may or may not live up to the Boston Red Sox's $103.1 million investment, but his ability to captivate the viewing public transcends language barriers and the always-important familiarity factor.

Over the last few weeks, Matsuzaka has generated as much attention as is humanly possible without being denigrated on the Don Imus radio program.

Red Sox fans didn't care if Matsuzaka was facing Ichiro Suzuki and Kenji Johjima or Larry Birkhead and Howard K. Stern on Wednesday night. A crowd of 36,630 -- the 309th straight Fenway Park sellout crowd -- showed up to take pictures, wear Japanese headbands and wave those neat signs with the dice and the letter K on the front.

Felix Hernandez
AP Photo/Charles KrupaFelix Hernandez didn't allow a runner to reach second base in a thoroughly dominating effort.
Boston fans didn't count on Seattle starter Felix Hernandez throwing a wrench into the proceedings and dwarfing the main event. Talk about bad timing; Matsuzaka proved to be good and mortal on a night when a quality start was destined to make him an afterthought.

Hernandez held the Red Sox hitless until J.D. Drew grounded a leadoff single up the middle in the eighth inning, and that was that. With a 3-0, one-hit, complete-game manhandling of the Boston lineup, Hernandez is now 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 17 innings this season.

And to think, he just turned 21 on Sunday. If this is, indeed, the breakout year that people are predicting for him, you can add Hernandez to the short list of pitchers who'll make Johan Santana have to work for the American League Cy Young Award.

"That kid can have a career like Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan or Pedro Martinez,'' Boston designated hitter David Ortiz said. "If he behaves and takes care of himself, he can be somebody really big in this game. He's very powerful as a pitcher. I don't think I've seen anything like that in a long time.''

For the season-ticket holders who put their cameras away when the Red Sox were at the plate, here are a few moments worth remembering: A 97 mph fastball to Ortiz to induce a ground out to second base, an 83 mph curveball to Drew that looked like an optical illusion, and a 91 mph slider that nearly put Jason Varitek in traction.

And that was in the first three innings.

Amazingly, Hernandez was pinpoint sharp after a seven-day layoff caused by the inclement weather that wrecked Seattle's weekend series with the Indians. When asked if he plans to make a habit of pitching Hernandez on a week's rest, Mariners manager Mike Hargrove replied, "I'd like to pitch him on one day's rest. That would be even better.''

Everything is relative in baseball. While the beleaguered, snowed-under fans in Cleveland would be happy with an Aaron Fultz sighting, Red Sox fans hit the mother lode Wednesday. Matsuzaka's Fenway debut made the game a natural happening, and there was the added attraction of Boston's young standout going head-to-head with Ichiro.

The two first faced each other in 1999, when Matsuzaka, an 18-year-old kid barely out of high school, struck out Ichiro three times in a row. Matsuzaka made nine more starts for the Seibu Lions against Ichiro's Orix team over two seasons, and held Ichiro to a cumulative .235 batting average on eight hits in 34 at-bats. In an interview with the Seattle Times on Tuesday, Ichiro sounded like a guy who was yearning for a rematch.

"I hope he arouses the fire that's dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul,'' Ichiro said, in a quote for the ages. "I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger.''

Japanese fans were equally zealous about watching things play out. Russell Gabay of Major League Baseball International estimated that the television audience for the Boston-Seattle game would surpass 20 million in Japan, even though the first pitch was scheduled for 8 a.m. Thursday local time.

Gaku Tashiro, a writer for Sankei Sports, said his newspaper planned to devote four pages of coverage to the Ichiro-Matsuzaka matchup -- one page less than what it committed to Japan's championship victory over Cuba in the World Baseball Classic last year.

If people thought it was a big deal when Ichiro, then a rookie with Seattle, faced Hideo Nomo in 2001, that encounter was a mere hors d'oeuvre compared to this one.

"When Matsuzaka whiffed Ichiro the first three times they faced each other, that was baseball history in Japan,'' said Brad Lefton, a freelance television producer who regularly covers Ichiro. "It was like Bill Mazeroski's World Series home run, or Enos Slaughter's mad dash home.''

Daisuke Matsuzaka
AP Photo/Charles KrupaDaisuke Matsuzaka retired Ichiro in all four of his plate appearances.
Matsuzaka didn't command his breaking stuff as deftly in this game as he did in his major league debut in Kansas City last week. Johjima doubled off him twice, and the Mariners knocked him around a bit in a two-run fifth. But he fared quite well against Seattle's leadoff man. Matsuzaka retired Ichiro on a comebacker in the first inning, a routine flyout in the third, a strikeout in the fifth and a fielder's choice in the seventh.

Matsuzaka provided a glimpse into his competitive side in the final encounter, when he threw a 92 mph fastball high and tight that sent Ichiro sprawling to the dirt.

The Mariners led 3-0 at that point, and the game was a foregone conclusion in light of the way Hernandez was dominating. But Matsuzaka showed something by completing his post-start work regimen and joining his Boston teammates in the dugout for the ninth inning.

"He was disappointed because it's a team loss,'' Boston pitching coach John Farrell said. "What we've come to find out in a very short time is that he's an outstanding teammate. He's a tremendous teammate. When he's not in the game, he's supporting everyone around him.''

After the game, Matsuzaka expressed disappointment that he wasn't able to come through for the Boston fans who supported him in his debut. As for Hernandez, he shrugged off the disappointment of coming so close to a no-hitter, only to watch it slip away when Drew's ground ball scooted between shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and second baseman Jose Lopez in the eighth.

"I'm not disappointed,'' Hernandez said. "I'm happy because we got a win. It was a special night for me.''

One pitcher is 26 years old and rapidly adjusting to an exciting new world. The other is 21 and ready to live up to all those predictions of greatness. Something tells us they both have a lot of special nights in front of them.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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