FORT MYERS, Fla. - It's a year later, and the Dice-K phenomenon has dulled slightly. What endures is the question, "How good can Daisuke Matsuzaka be?"
Winning 15 games as a 26-year-old rookie was impressive, but there were good times and bad. He spent the season learning his new teammates, the culture, and American baseball. He made adjustments with his pitches, and scaled down his vast repertoire and workout routine.
He adapted to a five-man rotation after having pitched once a week in Japan. He made it through a 162-game regular season, then playoffs and the World Series, and got better along the way. He heeded Curt Schilling's advice to command his fastball, get ahead of batters, and be economical with his pitches.
And so, four starts into his second spring training with the Red Sox, and with a horde of Japanese media still watching his every move, Matsuzaka will pitch once more before we find out if he will be able to make his start in the Tokyo Dome against the Oakland A's. Matsuzaka's wife, Tomoyo, is in Boston preparing for the birth of their second child, and the Sox don't know if Matsuzaka will make the season-opening Japan trip.
If he doesn't, it will be a huge disappointment for Japanese fans who want to see their hero pitch again in his homeland. Most of the Japanese media believe he will pitch. One reporter said while Japanese culture is changing to the point where a man can think family first and business second, there's still many who believe his profession should come first.
"It largely depends on what happens with his wife," Matsuzaka's agent, Scott Boras, said yesterday. "We haven't really talked about it that much. I know that in Daisuke's world, his family does come first. I don't know about the cultural aspect of it, but for Daisuke's his wife and his child would be the priority. I know how much he wants to go and how much he wants to pitch there. There's no doubt about that. But I think there's still a few days for a decision to be made on that."
Manager Terry Francona said he gave Matsuzaka today off so they can adjust his schedule. That set off speculation among the Japanese media that perhaps Matsuzaka was leaving for Boston, and that his wife would soon have the baby. If his wife has not gone into labor by Wednesday, Matsuzaka is scheduled to pitch in a game here that day, before the Sox leave for Japan.
The Sox have not pressured Matsuzaka. The call on when he leaves to be with his wife is his. With Josh Beckett not likely to pitch in either of the March 25-26 games in Japan, the Sox could be looking at starting Tim Wakefield and Jon Lester.
When asked if Matsuzaka was likely to start a game in Japan, Francona said, "When we're ready to announce what we're doing, we'll announce it. We're not going to speculate."
Matsuzaka pitched four innings and allowed two runs on four hits in yesterday's rain-shortened 7-4 win over the Baltimore Orioles at City of Palms Park. The game was called in the middle of the seventh inning, but Matsuzaka pitched in dry conditions. He was efficient, throwing 53 pitches, 37 for strikes, which is slightly fewer pitches than he was scheduled for.
"From the third inning onward, I felt I got a lot better and it would be nicer to be able to bring that state to the start of the game," Matsuzaka said through his interpreter.
Matsuzaka said he tried to improve his percentage of first-pitch strikes, and felt he succeeded. The Orioles scored a run in the first inning. Tike Redman led off with a single to right. After getting two ground outs that advanced the runner, Aubrey Huff stroked a single to right.
Matsuzaka also fielded his position well, starting a double play in the second inning. Melvin Mora took him deep for a home run in the third, but Matsuzaka seemed to have control of both sides of the plate.
Scouts said Matsuzaka threw a lot of breaking balls and changeups, and that his fastball topped out at 92 miles per hour. One scout said, "It looked as though he was pitching to contact. Looked like he was trying to economize his pitches more, which I think was a problem for him last year. It wasn't anything extraordinary, nothing that made you say, 'Wow,' but he definitely knows what he's doing out there and it looked like he got better as he went along."
Matsuzaka had no explanation why it took him a while to get in gear, except to say, "I know that I improve as I throw. I don't think there was any problem in particular. These things take care of themselves over time. I certainly wanted to get a lot of first-pitch strikes, and work on the batters early in the count. In terms of that, I think with first-pitch command I did fairly well today."
He also said he's never felt that getting ahead in the count was a big problem, but, "It's after that. Once I'm ahead in the count. It's when I have two strikes and being careful. There is what I need to focus on during the season."
He added, "In terms of the four games I've pitched so far, I feel that things are coming along well. As I said before, I'm a slow starter. In my fifth start, the thing I'll be working on is focusing on my first inning."
This spring, he's stepped up his workouts, and is looking bigger and stronger. And teammates have been asking him about Japan, especially the food.
"After we found out about the Japan trip, a lot of my teammates came up to me to teach me more Japanese phrases, and I got a lot of questions about Japanese food," he said. "Everyone is looking forward to the trip. For the players, it's going to be physically demanding, but hopefully we can get a couple of wins and create our memories that way."
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.