OAKLAND, Calif. - The homecoming dance was a disappointment.
"It's something I can only say in hindsight," Daisuke Matsuzaka said last night, "but it would have been nice to pitch better in the Tokyo Dome than I did."
But that was a one-shot deal, pitching for the Red Sox in his native land. In last night's 2-1 Sox win over the Oakland Athletics, two teams who opened the 2008 season in Japan, Matsuzaka returned to his adopted country and served notice that he may be settling in quite nicely in the place where he'll be making another 30 or so starts this season.
"I guess you could say I'm getting more and more used to it, but it's not something I really think about," he said. "A lot of it has to do with how everyone perceives me. That may be one of the results."
Matsuzaka gave up an opposite-field home run in the second inning to Jack Cust, the ultimate all-or-nothing Oakland slugger, and just one other hit in 6 2/3 masterful innings in which he struck out nine and did not walk a batter. With Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon making a one-run lead stand up and batterymate Jason Varitek knocking in the go-ahead run with a double that might have been a home run, Matsuzaka had his first win of the season.
He also had sufficient motivation to ask a clubhouse attendant to retrieve the game ball, which someone (the evidence points to Papelbon) had tossed into the stands.
Matsuzaka wanted the ball as a souvenir for his newborn son, whose name he has not yet made public.
"I had asked my teammates to hang onto the game ball, but I guess the message didn't get through," he said.
Given his emotional state after striking out the side in the ninth inning of a four-out save, Papelbon probably had no idea what he'd done with the ball. It would have surprised no one if he said his dog ate it, like last October's World Series ball.
There was no question which side of the Big Pond Papelbon prefers.
"From my last outing to today's outing, it was a totally different pitcher, a totally different feel, a totally different person," said Papelbon, who entered with a runner on first and two outs in the eighth and retired pinch hitter Mike Sweeney on a force play, then struck out Travis Buck, Mark Ellis, and Daric Barton in succession.
"I don't think that my outing in Japan really signified the vintage Papelbon," he said. "I feel like tonight I signified that."
Matsuzaka, who had a no-decision in Boston's 6-5, 10-inning win in his first start, set the tone last night by striking out the first two batters he faced, Buck and Ellis, and allowed only four balls out of the infield. The last time he pitched without issuing a walk was last May 30.
The Sox did not exactly mash against Oakland starter Joe Blanton and two relievers - jet-lagged DH David Ortiz remains hitless (0 for 11) in three games - but Kevin Youkilis had three hits and scored both runs, rookie Jacoby Ellsbury drove home one with a fifth-inning single, and Varitek doubled home the deciding run an inning later.
It's two openers and counting for Matsuzaka, who got a no-decision in the Japan game and a win in Oakland's home opener. Strangely enough, one more opening act awaits him. With ace Josh Beckett primed to come off the disabled list and start Sunday in Toronto, Matsuzaka is in line to pitch the Red Sox home opener Tuesday afternoon in Boston. Based on last night's performance, he should be on the receiving end of a rousing reception in the Fens.
The Athletics took a 1-0 lead in the second when Cust hit Matsuzaka's first pitch of the inning into the left-field seats. The Sox tied the score in the fifth against Oakland ace Blanton. Youkilis blooped a single to right, and Julio Lugo hit a comebacker that caromed off Blanton's heel and rolled away for an infield hit. Ellsbury, playing right field in J.D. Drew's absence and batting leadoff for the first time this season, lined a single to right.
Buck, the right fielder, played the ball on one hop and uncorked a strong throw to the plate, but Youkilis somehow managed to elude the tag of catcher Kurt Suzuki to score the tying run.
The Sox took a 2-1 lead in the sixth when Youkilis tripled off the top of the left-field fence and scored ahead of a double by Varitek, who was shocked that he was required to stop at second, since his drive appeared to hit above the yellow line on the right-field wall that signaled a home run. Sox manager Terry Francona pleaded Varitek's case to plate umpire Wally Bell, and though the umpires huddled to discuss the matter, the hit stood as called, and Varitek was stranded when Coco Crisp tapped out to Blanton.
Matsuzaka had rung up 60 pitches in his first two innings in the Tokyo Dome and appeared unnerved by the occasion.
But last night, Matsuzaka was at his unflappable best, retiring the last 13 batters he faced after Suzuki's leadoff single in the third. Francona lifted him for Okajima with two outs and nobody on in the seventh, Matsuzaka having thrown 96 pitches, one more than he'd thrown in five innings in the Tokyo Dome.
Okajima, facing Cust, issued the first walk of the night for Boston, but retired Emil Brown on a pop to second to end the inning.
Okajima gave up a single to Bobby Crosby to open the eighth. Jack Hannahan tried bunting the runner over, but Mike Lowell pounced on the ball and erased Crosby at second. Suzuki flied to left for the second out.
'I kind of gambled," Lowell said. "I figured lefty on lefty, if you're going to slash there, the percentages are in my favor. I just wanted to make sure if he bunted it up the middle or toward third I'd get to it early. Sometimes you cheat a little bit and see what happens. It paid off right there."
When Oakland manager Bob Geren went to Sweeney to pinch hit, Francona summoned Papelbon, who induced Sweeney to ground to shortstop Julio Lugo for an inning-ending force.