Varitek works to gain Japanese star's trust early

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It didn't take long for Jason Varitek to see a Japanese pitcher excel with the Red Sox.

Jason Varitek Varitek

Boston's catcher was behind the plate on April 4, 2001, when Hideo Nomo threw a no-hitter in his first start for the team, a 3-0 victory in Baltimore that ended with Nomo wrapping his arms around Varitek after the final out.

"Obviously, things worked out pretty quickly and really well with Hideo," Varitek said Saturday.

Now, he must get used to another Japanese star. But while Nomo had pitched six major league seasons before his only year with Boston, Daisuke Matsuzaka is making his major league debut after eight seasons with the Seibu Lions.

In both cases, though, the pitcher and catcher must gain trust in each other.

Nomo, Varitek said, "was very perceptive of what went on with everybody, but he didn't say a whole lot. We developed a trust between us early. It might not happen right away" with Matsuzaka.

But the 34-year-old Varitek knows he'll probably be behind the plate for most starts by Matsuzaka, who received a six-year, $52 million contract from the Red Sox.

"We're going to be in this relationship for a while," Varitek said. "It comes down to a pitcher's strengths, what he can and can't do. And it looks like, in Dice-K's case, there's a lot he can do."

The 26-year-old Matsuzaka was 17-5 with a career-best 2.13 ERA last season. He struck out 200 and walked just 34 in 186 1/3 innings.

On Sunday, he'll throw his first bullpen session on the first official day of spring training. He's scheduled to throw in a group with another Japanese newcomer, lefty reliever Hideki Okajima, and the other four starters -- Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon and Tim Wakefield.

On Saturday, pitchers and catchers took physicals and performed timed conditioning runs. After one sprint, manager Terry Francona tapped Matsuzaka on the left shoulder and smiled.

Varitek, a dedicated student of his pitchers and opposing batters, has to deal with new pitchers every season. Last year, it was Beckett when he switched leagues after being traded by Florida.

"If I could tell Matsuzaka anything, I think it would just be, trust 'Tek,'" Beckett said. "'Tek' spends more time on hitters. I've never seen anyone prepare like him."

But Varitek has some concerns of his own -- rebounding from a disappointing season. A left knee injury limited him to 103 games, his fewest in five years. His .238 batting average was his lowest in his nine seasons with Boston, but he said his health wasn't the reason.

Now, he said, he's in excellent shape and appreciates the return of the baseball season "even more and more as you get older."

As always, he still considers his most important job to be learning about his pitchers and working to maximize their performances rather than producing at the plate.

This year, though, he has the added challenge of working with a pitching star who speaks a different language.

"If I have to [learn Japanese] I will," Varitek said, "whatever's going to help him be comfortable."

He has watched Matsuzaka throw on video but wants to see for himself what Matsuzaka can do and build what he called "a database" as he does with all pitchers.

"I've got to see him with my own eyes," Varitek said. "The biggest thing is communicating because sometimes what you've been told about somebody isn't what they feel and isn't how they perceive themselves."

And, despite his offensive struggles last year, "I believe in myself and my ability, still," he said. "I can be part of a championship team taking care of the little things and that's why I'm here."