Matsuzaka's first start a real spectacle

In an event fit for a rock star, Daisuke Matsuzaka put together a dazzling performance in his first start for the Red Sox.

Originally Published: April 5, 2007
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- "You're going to have to move," a suit told the horde in front of the Red Sox dugout early Thursday afternoon.

They didn't move. They didn't speak English. It was just over an hour before Daisuke Matsuzaka's major-league debut, fans were screaming and holding signs in Japanese, and a crush of media was camped on the dirt waiting for a shot.

"Good Morning Japan" was in Kansas City following Dice-K and waiting for history. Matsuzaka tossed a ball in the outfield, and roughly 75 cameras clicked. He wiped his brow. More clicks. It was a circus fit for a $103 million man, and for one afternoon, at least, the Japanese pitcher with a rock-star following lived up to it.

He struck out 10 batters in seven innings in Boston's 4-1 win on a day at Kauffman Stadium that was a rare spectacle. The temperature hovered in the mid-30s when Matsuzaka stepped on the mound, leaned back and took a deep breath before unloading a 93-mph fastball on David DeJesus.

Diasuke Matsuzaka
Charlie Riedel/AP PhotoDaisuke Matsuzaka struck out 10 in seven innings in his first start for the Red Sox Thursday.
Most days in Kansas City, when it's 36 degrees, a pitcher can gaze at a sea of empty blue seats. On Thursday, more than 23,000 showed up, many of them in Red Sox gear.

DeJesus fouled off Matsuzaka's first pitch, and eventually lined a single to left-center. But after that, Matsuzaka was dominating. He struck out the side in the fourth inning and retired 10 straight batters at one point. He scattered six hits and gave up his only walk in the first.

His steely demeanor never changed throughout the three-hour game.

Asked if this was what fans could expect from Matsuzaka, manager Terry Francona bristled.

"I honestly don't give a [darn] what people can expect," Francona said. "I just wanted him to go out and try to be the best pitcher he can be. The expectations, from what I've heard so far, are unreachable.

"He's got this thing figured out better than anybody else. He loves to pitch, he enjoys the heck out of the game, and he's pretty damn good."

When it was over, Matsuzaka grabbed a souvenir ball from catcher Jason Varitek, then bowed to the field before heading into the clubhouse. He spoke later, through an interpreter, in front of a packed room.

He said the day felt normal to him, so he wasn't nervous.

"It's a day I've been waiting for for a very long time," Matsuzaka said. "Even given that fact, it felt strangely normal."

He threw 108 pitches, 74 of them strikes. Varitek said Matsuzaka used all of the pitches in his arsenal, which is believed to be seven.

Matsuzaka seemed to get stronger as the game went on, and was clocked at 93 mph in the seventh inning. He struck out Ryan Shealy and Ross Gload, then got John Buck to fly out to center. He was halfway to the dugout as Coco Crisp squeezed the final out in the seventh inning.

"He reminds me of Pedro [Martinez]," designated hitter David Ortiz said. "Doesn't matter what situation, with men on base or nobody on base, he has control of the situation."

Even when the situation seems out of control off the field. Everywhere Matsuzaka has gone this spring, a gaggle of cameras has followed. About 135 credentials were issued to the Japanese media for Thursday's game. One longtime Royals writer said it was the biggest media showing in Kansas City since the 1985 World Series.

The game aired live on TV in Japan at 3 a.m.

"It's a day I've been waiting for for a very long time. Even given that fact, it felt strangely normal."
-- Daisuke Matsuzaka

Matsuzaka seems almost embarrassed by the scene, and the fact that he's reached Michael Jordan status in his homeland.

"He handles it very well," Red Sox spokesperson John Blake said. "It's amazing to me in a lot of ways how unflappable he is with all this. But he's had to deal with it since high school."

The legend grew in 1998 when Matsuzaka threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning win in high school. Boston won a $51.1 million bidding war for Dice-K in the offseason, and his days in a Red Sox uniform have been one prolonged spectacle.

"It's very important for Japanese people that he succeeds," Scott Filipski said as he filmed Matsuzaka for Fuji TV on Thursday. "It was like that with [Hideo] Nomo too. There was all this tension. I remember when Nomo came over, I was in Japan watching the All-Star Game broadcast. The first pitch he throws is a strike and there's like a sigh of relief. Because there are tremendous expectations."

Matsuzaka wasn't thinking about the expectations late Thursday, or the scene that will surround him in Boston on Wednesday. That's when he's scheduled to make his home debut and will face Ichiro Suzuki.

That's when the circus will really start.

"He's so even keeled in his demeanor that you can't really sense [nervousness]," Varitek said. "He was very good in his bullpen today; his balance and his release were very good. And you could tell that was going to translate. It doesn't always, but in his case it did."

Elizabeth Merrill is a writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.

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