THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Red Sox get close-up look at Dice-K mania

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / March 21, 2008

TOKYO -- As soon as Daisuke Matsuzaka walked off the field at the Tokyo Dome Friday afternoon, he was surrounded. Crushed, perhaps, by a cavalcade of media, cameras, and flashbulbs. And it wasn't even the first time he had addressed them that day. Even with his 15-minute press conference two hours earlier, the Japanese media were hanging on his every word, a lot like they were last season when Matsuzaka strolled into spring training and into the mob.

His return to Japan, of course, is just as important.

''I think we all knew Dice was very popular in Japan, but when we got off the plane yesterday, I thought there was just a light problem with the elevators,'' Mike Lowell joked. ''It was all the camera flashes when he was walking out.''

So, yes, he is loved. Exalted, perhaps. It will be a major event here in Tokyo when Matsuzaka takes the mound on Tuesday in the season opener against Oakland because everyone in Japan, everywhere in Japan, seems to know his name. They all follow him. They all want to see him do well. (Or, at least, the vast majority.)

His Red Sox teammates seemed to get that message. They had already seen Matsuzaka's reception when he arrived last season to pitch for the Red Sox, and that was reinforced by their view of his comeback appearance, or at least the beginning of it, when they headed off their charter plane upon arrival. It stands to reason, though, that nothing will top his ovation when he takes the field to start the opening game, a definite honor, even it's because of Josh Beckett's lower back injury.

''I guess we won't actually be able to tell how my teammates will react until we all take the field, but on the bus on the way to the hotel last night everybody was commenting -- even sympathizing -- as to how much attention I receive over here,'' said Matsuzaka, through interpreter Masa Hoshino. ''For me, I guess it's not that much of a problem.''

Apparently he's gotten used to the hordes.

After they got the requisite questions out of the way, about the trip and whether he thought he would be pitching in Japan so soon, the details of a reunion with his homeland, the queries turned. The issue of the day in Japan became Matsuzaka's pitch count, an extremely serious matter, especially to the people of Japan.

There is pressure, it seems, from the Japanese public for Matsuzaka to pitch deep into the game. Yet Matsuzaka sounded like he was putting similar pressure on himself. Or at least that he understood the desire for him to pitch as much of Game 1 of the season as he could.

''The fans here expect me to go deep into the game,'' Matsuzaka said. ''But even more so, I'm the one that expects that out of myself. Throughout spring training I've been very conscious of pitch counts and doing my best working around that. If I can keep focusing on the things I've been working on, I feel that I will naturally be able to go deep into games.''

He said the team, or pitching coach John Farrell, hasn't spoken with him regarding his pitch count. But he added that, after he throws his next side session, they will have that discussion even though the fastidious Red Sox already have a plan. And it's one that might not coincide with his wishes.

''It's early in the season,'' Francona said. ''I think maybe that's where some of this is coming from. On March 25, pitchers aren't ready to go as deep as they will later in the season. I think what we've been talking about all spring is not doing something on March 25 that will have repercussions on August 25. Our intent is to win the game. If we have to

pull a pitcher an inning before because of the timing of the series, we will do that.''

Even if that pitcher is Matsuzaka.

That won't make many people happy, Matsuzaka included. But, still, it seems a small price, when there was a distinct chance not long ago that Matsuzaka wasn't going to make the flight to Tokyo at all. Nothing was assured. Because the due date of his now new-born son was originally March 19, Matsuzaka's appearance in Japan was far from a guarantee. He was asked, from the start of spring training, whether he would be able to make the trip. He mostly declined to answer.

It worked out, though. One might think the nation of Japan rejoiced.

''It was not easy leaving my new-born son behind and I certainly felt some sadness and loneliness parting ways with him,'' Matsuzaka said. ''But my family were very supportive of me throughout this and they sent me off with very strong encouragement. So all I can do is to do my best here and take that back to Boston.''

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

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