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Matsuzaka in spotlight

It's a high-stakes game - and that's why he's here

This is why Craig Shipley and Jon Deeble got lost riding on the Tokyo subway system, why Tom Werner hosted a private dinner party that had Japanese delicacies on the menu, why a superstitious John W. Henry added as many 1s as he could to his secret posting bid, why a sleepless Theo Epstein waited at a small airfield in southern California in a scene reminiscent of the ending his grandfather wrote for "Casablanca."

All of them - scout, owner, general manager - shared a vision of this night coming to pass, when Daisuke Matsuzaka, the "Monster" in Japan, would straddle the International Dateline and pitch a meaningful game in October in front of the Green Monster of Fenway Park.

Matsuzaka - high school legend, Olympic hero, Sawamura Award winner as the best pitcher in Japan, World Baseball Classic MVP - has a résumé that already assures him, at age 27, of an exalted place among Japanese baseball heroes.

His place in Red Sox lore? That remains a work in progress, though Matsuzaka, a 15-game winner who threw more than 200 innings and struck out more than 200 batters in his first season, could go a long way toward shaping his legacy tonight, when he faces the Los Angeles Angels in Game 2 of their American League Division Series. The Angels are countering with righthander Kelvim Escobar, who was 18-7 but was shut down for two weeks in September with a tired shoulder.

The Sox lead the best-of-five series, 1-0, after Josh Beckett shut out the Angels on four hits and no walks in one of the great opening acts in Sox postseason annals. Manager Terry Francona was asked yesterday if Matsuzaka could learn from Beckett's performance, one in which he retired 19 consecutive Angels at one point, tying Mike Mussina of the Yankees for the third-longest string of outs in the postseason, behind Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956 and Herb Pennock's 22 in a row for the '27 Yankees.

Sure, Francona said, "if Daisuke wants to throw 97 with a cut, a curveball from hell, and a really good changeup."

Two things should work in Matsuzaka's favor tonight. One is that the Angels have never faced him, an advantage for most pitchers, an even bigger one for a pitcher with as many pitches as Matsuzaka. He made nine starts against teams he faced just once during the regular season. Throw out his game in Texas, in which he pitched despite being ill, and he has been superb in those starts: a 5-3 record and 2.33 ERA, having allowed just 14 earned runs in 54 innings. In five of those starts, he went at least seven innings, including his eight-inning, two-run outing last Friday night against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park.

The other is that the Angels are a free-swinging bunch, which should help mitigate the high pitch counts Matsuzaka tends to run up. Matsuzaka led the majors in pitches per start - 108.81 - even though he averaged just over 6 1/3 innings per start.

"We have to make a quick study," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said of seeing Matsuzaka for the first time. "We were very familiar with Beckett and didn't have much success."

Matsuzaka, the first rookie to strike out 200 batters and pitch 200 innings in a season since Doc Gooden and Mark Langston in 1984, was much more successful in the season's first half (10-6, 3.84) than he was in the second (5-6, 5.19 ERA), leading to concerns that he was wearing down from the length of the big league season, the adjustment to a five-man rotation, and the unfamiliar travel demands. The Sox gave him an extra three days' rest between starts in mid-September, and even before he finished the season on a high note - pitching the victory that, combined with a Yankees loss, gave the Sox their first AL East title in 12 years - they already had decided he would follow Beckett in the postseason rotation. That puts him in line to pitch a deciding Game 5.

Catcher Jason Varitek said Matsuzaka's best days are ahead of him. The Sox captain sees this year as a transition much like the one Beckett experienced coming to the AL last season, only exponentially more difficult.

"You have so many new elements," Varitek said in a recent conversation. "A new country, you go down the list, you could make a list a hundred miles long. You know what? He's a human being. Those are adjustments, and you're adjusting to the DH, these long lineups, balls and mounds and situations, new guys. It's constant.

"The good thing with him is he wants to be good. He's got another level to get to. His stuff's not going to get any better. But when he refines his location, he's going to dominate."

Matsuzaka had little to say at an obligatory press conference Wednesday for the Game 2 pitcher. He kept his answers very short, much to the aggravation of a Japanese media that has tracked him all season.

"Almost everything was new to me this year," he said, "so every experience I had, I decided early on that it was going to be a learning year for me. Now that I'm at the very end, I just feel that I want to go into this game in the best shape that I possibly can."

For all the attention he has received, the journey in many ways has been a lonely one for Matsuzaka, and his Japanese teammate, Hideki Okajima. Talk to his teammates? First baseman Kevin Youkilis mentioned yesterday that he hasn't had a single exchange with Matsuzaka or Okajima he would term a conversation. Hellos and one-liners, that's about as deep as it's gotten, Youkilis said, between the Japanese and non-Japanese teammates.

"I'd be frustrated," Youkilis said. "The whole year, 7 1/2 months, not being able to talk to your teammates, not knowing what they're saying. A lot of guys go out of their way to have fun and joke with them, little things here and there. They had fun, they enjoyed it, but it's got to be tough. The culture shock has to be tremendous."

Tonight, none of that will matter. Matsuzaka will have a baseball in his hands, with a chance to compose poetry, understandable in any language.

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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