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Opening pitch

Matsuzaka speaks the language in first outing at spring training

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There might be nothing better than illusion.

"Hmm. How should I answer that question?" Daisuke Matsuzaka said yesterday, through his translator, media relations employee Sachiyo Sekiguchi, in response to the inevitable question about the gyroball. "I knew this question was coming today. And I was preparing some optional answers for this particular question. Should I say, 'I have that ball'? Or I could say, 'Which particular ball are you referring to?' Or 'Which ball are you calling a gyroball?'

"Overall, if I have the chance, I will pitch that ball."

And that was it.

With that answer, or maybe that question, Matsuzaka finished his 40-minute Fort Myers introduction to the media, a press conference that showed a sly sense of humor to go along with an engaging personality that hardly required an understanding of Japanese. He looked at ease, confidence coming through in his answers, and a ready smile flashing in the session conducted at a temporary podium just beyond the third base dugout at City of Palms Park in front of approximately 150 members of the media.

Perhaps the most notable part of the press conference -- outside of his answers to baseball questions -- was the English Matsuzaka appeared to pick up on. Before thanking the media, in English, Matsuzaka seemed to react to things said by Sekiguchi, once adding to an answer during her translation. Matsuzaka said he has been learning English, and he seems to be a quick learner. That should help in mound conferences with catcher Jason Varitek, manager Terry Francona, and pitching coach John Farrell, though Farrell has been learning Japanese.

"In order to get along well with my teammates, communication is very important," Matsuzaka said. "I would like to learn English and I am learning English right now as we speak."

He's also just getting used to Fort Myers and spring training. After his workouts in Southern California at the offices of agent Scott Boras, Matsuzaka indicated his arm was at the stage at which, in Japan, it would normally be at this point in the season, throwing to batters. That sets him ahead of some of his fellow pitchers, some of whom are scheduled to arrive today.

The other pitchers, of course, mostly won't have the same pressure. They're not the signing of the season, the heralded import from Japan, the one with dozens of media outlets following his every move.

They're not the ones who cost the Red Sox $103 million.

"The scale of the contract does not determine how I play baseball," Matsuzaka said. "I feel responsibility a little bit, but I am not pressured.

"I have received a lot of expectations all my life, but I always remembered [the] most important thing for me is to play ball and have fun and I have done so and I will keep doing so. By doing so, I will meet everybody's expectations."

That might be hard, for the expectations have been soaring since he made that cross-country trip with the signing deadline looming. But for now his concerns fall more on the side of the everyday happenings. Introductions to teammates, who he said have been very nice, many approaching him. (Kevin Youkilis, who arrived yesterday, said he learned how to bow in his first meeting with Matsuzaka.) Matsuzaka will have to cope with the daily work, the throwing and the workouts, and the media. That brought up the question, posed by a member of the Japanese contingent, of who would be receiving those tosses?

"Right now the team is providing a partner for me when I play catch," Matsuzaka said. "During spring training, I believe the best or easiest player for me to work with will be Okajima-san [fellow pitcher Hideki Okajima]. I would love to play catch with other pitchers, including particularly [Tim] Wakefield. I would like to catch his knuckleballs. Maybe I won't be able to catch."

Maybe not. But maybe Wakefield can get a sideline as a tutor, because it seems Matsuzaka would make an eager student.

"If I can keep my form and still pitch a knuckleball, it will be very advantageous for me," he said. "I tried that in Los Angeles, but it didn't work. For now I will keep it on the side."

That might be the last thing hitters want to hear. Matsuzaka talking cryptically about throwing a gyroball and a knuckleball?

It certainly won't be a comfort to the opposition. Perhaps nothing in his latest press conference was. Except for the part in which he gave away his pitch selection.

So here's a piece of advice to whomever is leading off in Matsuzaka's first game: Be kind. He's not from around here.

"I would love to pitch a fastball, that will be my first ball," Matsuzaka said, before adding with a smile creasing his face, "I would like my first batter, if he is listening, please try not to hit the ball."

Will it be a fastball? A breaking ball? A gyroball? Doesn't matter. Once again, it's all in the illusion.

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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