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Jackie MacMullan

Matsuzaka was brilliant, in every facet

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / April 9, 2008

Amid the pageantry, and the rings, and Pie McKenzie and Bill Russell, and the Whitman's Sampler of Boston championship trophies, and the peeling back of layers upon layers of Red Sox banners, as if the home team were unveiling its version of a championship Vidalia onion, there was a baseball game at Fenway Park.

No disrespect to the creative minds of the Red Sox, who celebrated Opening Day and the team's 2007 World Series championship in fine style yesterday. It's just that this is the second time around, and you tend, in spite of yourself, to get mildly complacent with the concept.

How about that? We've grown accustomed to World Series championship events.

Yet there is something to be said for appreciating the comfort level of a second go-around. You need look no further than Boston's starting pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, for proof.

Dice-K is no longer a major league rookie experiencing every facet of the American version of his lifelong pursuit for the first time. While the expectations from the mother country are still significant, he is clearly better equipped to handle the pressure, the attention, and the culture of his baseball home simply because he did it last season.

"I do think he'll be able to pitch more without handling things on the periphery, or things for the first time," said manager Terry Francona. "He doesn't have to answer questions about a place he's never been, or a baseball he's never used. So when he doesn't throw the ball the way he wants, it won't be because of a new culture."

For the second time in as many starts, Dice-K was in command. He threw 6 2/3 innings of shutout baseball and struck out seven in a 5-0 win. The closest thing to a blip was an anxious sixth inning when Placido Polanco looped a single to center field that a diving Coco Crisp nearly pocketed, and Gary Sheffield followed with what can only be characterized as an accidental infield hit.

That put two on with one out and set up the most significant sequence of the day: Matsuzaka against Magglio Ordonez. Dice-K worked Ordonez into a 1-and-2 hole by mixing his pitches and catching him with a check-swing foul ball. He then served up a fastball that Ordonez swung at and missed with a fair amount of gusto.

Strike three.

Asked to assess the pitcher, Ordonez offered, "He threw strikes."

When pressed to expound on Matsuzaka's improved command, Ordonez said, "I don't know about that, and I don't care. We have our own things to deal with."

Indeed they do. The Tigers, picked by many to be the next World Series champions, are off to an abysmal 0-7 start lowlighted by anemic hitting and atrocious fielding.

Their best chance at dinging Dice-K was in that sixth inning. After Ordonez whiffed, Matsuzaka walked Miguel Cabrera on four pitches, but after running the count to 3-and-1 on Carlos Guillen (one of the few Tigers who has been hitting this season), Dice-K gathered himself and coaxed him into a harmless fly ball to center field.

Not only did Boston's ace (he inherits the mantle while Josh Beckett finds his way back from back trouble) wiggle out of a jam, he looked positively serene doing so. The difference in his body language from situations like this last year was notable.

"Last year, those big innings seemed to crop up in late June to early August," said pitching coach John Farrell. "He had a tendency to want to rely on his velocity in those situations.

"Today he kept his composure. He still pitched, and was able to manipulate his fastball. He just looks more relaxed, instead of, 'OK, I'm in a jam. I'm going to fight my way through it.' "

This was Matsuzaka's third Opening Day of the young season, the first a no-decision at the Tokyo Dome in his native Japan March 25 in which he left trailing, 2-0. But Dice-K followed that outing with a gem in Oakland last week in which he gave up just 1 run, 2 hits, and struck out 9.

Farrell points to a variety of adjustments that have helped Matsuzaka in Year 2 in The Nation. He is throwing more two-seamers, a pitch he didn't even try until September. He is willing to pitch inside more to righties and is more apt to throw his changeup to batters (mostly lefthanders) that Farrell earmarks for him ahead of time.

"He's also not being so fine when he gets ahead in the count," Farrell reported. "We're hopeful he'll get into the seventh, eighth, and ninth inning a little more with a reasonable pitch count."

Yesterday Dice-K threw 108 pitches, 62 for strikes. He has gone five innings or more and given up two runs or fewer in all three of his starts. And in the last 13 1/3 innings, he has given up just one earned run.

Matsuzaka conceded yesterday was far less hectic than his first start at Fenway last year.

"Whether it was the loud ovation or the flashy welcome, there was a lot going on, so I might have been affected a little bit mentally," he confessed through his interpreter. "This time around, I felt I was able to approach the game just like a normal game and get into it very naturally."

Of course, it is too early to draw any grand conclusions about Dice-K, just as it would be were he 0-2 and struggling. But there's something comforting in the knowledge that your pitcher has spent a full season working with his veteran catcher, and that he won't get lost trying to find his way home from the park.

Matsuzaka was a bit too preoccupied with preparing for his start to receive his World Series ring along with his teammates in the elaborate pregame ceremony yesterday. At some point during his workday, someone slipped the finger bling into his locker. At first glance, Dice-K was heard remarking, "Kakkoo-ii," or, "So cool."

"I must say, it looked pretty good," he said.

So did the guy wearing it.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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