Again, Matsuzaka will be main event

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / March 24, 2008

TOKYO -- With a few questions left in a press conference designed to celebrate the World Baseball Classic, a Japanese journalist stood up in the back of a banquet room. He wanted to know how, exactly, David Ortiz and Jason Varitek, likely to play for the Dominican Republic and the United States, would feel facing Daisuke Matsuzaka.

No matter that the WBC doesn't kick off for nearly another year. No matter that Matsuzaka has far more immediate concerns like, say, his Opening Day start the next day in the Tokyo Dome, back in his home country for the first time since he defected for Major League Baseball. There were questions to be asked, and those questions would most certainly involve Matsuzaka.

"People always expect you to do well after your first year, but I think Matsuzaka did a great job for us last year," Ortiz said, in response. "First year in the majors as a pitcher is tough, man, because especially in the American League, the American League has a lot of good hitters, and the way he walked in and did what he did last year, I think it was outstanding.

"I know, and everybody knows, that he can get it done better. But it takes some experience. I'm pretty sure he's going to have a great season, even better than last year, because he's an outstanding pitcher and he has great stuff."

Ortiz then answered the original question, saying, "it's going to be funny," facing a teammate. Fortunately for him, that's not going to be an issue, at least until next March. Far more important would be Joe Blanton and the Oakland A's, the second-fiddle team that has been nearly ignored in this trip to Japan, the third time Major League Baseball has started a season in the country.

Ah, yes, Opening Day comes first. And Matsuzaka's first Opening Day start for the Red Sox.

With Josh Beckett suffering a lower back injury in his third spring training start, that created the opportunity for the madness, for the obsession, surrounding this start. Sure, had Matsuzaka been starting the second game it would still have garnered excitement. It would still have caused a frenzy. Maybe not one of this level, though.

"He's a legend out here, so to see all the flashes'' will be amazing, Coco Crisp said. "They love him, and Ichiro, [Hideki] Matsui. They really support their ballplayers. I'll like to see how it's going to be. I think it's going to be very exciting, all the light bulbs going off."

Because if Hideki Okajima's return to the Tokyo Dome, where he once pitched as a member of the Yomiuri Giants, occasioned enough flashes to power a small city, one can only imagine the results tonight.

Not everyone feels that way, though. When asked if he was excited to see Matsuzaka start in Japan, Manny Ramirez said, "Not really."

"Why should I be excited?" he said. "We saw him pitch like 30 games in Boston. It will be the same."

Well, except for the rabid Japanese fans, the massive swell of light from the simultaneous flashes, the ceaseless chanting and cheering, and, oh, the fortunes of a country depending on his every pitch.

"Striking the balance is some of our challenge," manager Terry Francona said. "There's no doubt it's Opening Day, he's pitching in the country where he grew up, he's going to have a little bit more adrenaline. We want to make sure not just Daisuke but everybody is prepared to do what we're asking them to do. We'll certainly keep an idea of amount of innings, pitch count, while recognizing hit counts. We don't want to do something to damage August and September and hopefully beyond that.

"I'd love to send him out there and let him try to pitch a complete game, like he probably wants to. We just probably can't shoot for that now."

That doesn't mean that all of Japan, from the journalists to the fans, won't be expecting Matsuzaka to last as late as he can in the first game of the season, something Matsuzaka himself acknowledged when he said, "I hope I will be able to pitch [many] innings." But with all the pressure, all the expectations, Francona keeps pounding through one message: It's just one game. One game today. One game to begin the season.

There's no point, he says, in thinking about the next game, the playoffs -- the World Baseball Classic.

Though Varitek answered the question too: "By the time we get to next year, Dice will have another year under his belt with us. So, as far as my offensive attack against him, I'll come up with that by then. Right now I'm going to bunt. Then steal second."

First, though, he's got to call pitches for Matsuzaka. With a million flashbulbs going off and a country -- not to mention his own team -- hanging on every pitch.

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at

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