ST. PETERSBURG – This afternoon in the Red Sox clubhouse, Daisuke Matsuzaka prepared himself to speak with Boston media for the first time since his critical comments about the Red Sox became public last week. A pack of reporters huddled around him and his translator, Masa Hoshino. They spoke Japanese back and forth, and then Hoshino addressed the reporters.
“He wanted to say a few things to the fans, especially, in English, so he’s going to give it a shot,” Hoshino explained. “And he apologizes beforehand if it’s hard to pick up. You can always come back to me for clarification.”
With that, Matsuzaka composed himself and, for the first time since his Red Sox tenure began, spoke to a group of media in English.
“I want to clear up a few things,” Matsuzaka said, pausing to swallow between sentences. “It was not my intention to make the meeting public or to criticize the Red Sox. The person who wrote the article is my old, old friend. I still trust her and this has never happened before. Training, no problem. No problem with the Red Sox. We will work it all out. I want to thank all my fans for their support and I can’t wait to see all of you when I go back to Fenway Park. Thank you.”
Matsuzaka nailed each of carefully chosen words, both a gesture and a show of progress with English. Matsuzaka’s rehab in Fort Myers has made both him and the Red Sox optimistic that he could return to the Red Sox by early September. While improving his condition and strengthening his arm, Matsuzaka has also studied English.
“I’m very well aware of all the difficulties, and communication, because of the language barrier, is a source of stress for the coaches and for the manager,” Matsuzaka said through Hoshino. “It’s just another obstacle to having good communication. So I’m aware of that, and recently, bit by bit, admittedly, I’ve been taking steps to study a little bit of English every day.”
Matsuzaka talked at length with pitching John Farrell both days the Red Sox spent here, and on Tuesday he spoke with manager Terry Francona for 45 minutes. Red Sox representatives — initially angered by his comments — spoke with Matsuzaka over the phone after his criticisms came to light, but both sides benefited from speaking in person.
“It was really productive,” Francona said. “I kind of just needed to remind him of a few things. Regardless of whether I think he messed up, or was wrong, we all make mistakes. OK, where do we go from here? I just needed to remind him that, you know, we don’t carry grudges. I have to remind myself of things, too. This guy’s in a whole different culture. I felt real good about it. I think he did, too. That’s more important to me than what happened last week.”
Said Matsuzaka: “I think it was very meaningful and valuable for me to come up here and speak to them face-to-face. I think, by actually having those conversations face-to-face, I was able to clear up some misunderstandings that were still lingering, so I think it was a very, very valuable opportunity to see them. And precisely because of this opportunity and the time that they set aside for me, I feel that I’m going to be able to go back and really work hard and get back to focusing on my training, which is what I need to be doing.”
Matsuzaka will take a significant step in returning to the Red Sox next Tuesday. He’ll throw a bullpen session of a mound, his first throws from a mound since he went on the disabled list June 21. “Been pretty adamant all along that when he steps on the mound, he’s going to be ready to go,” Francona said.
The Red Sox will wait until September to ease Matsuzaka into the starting rotation. Because he will likely last only four in five innings in his start, the Sox would need the extra bullpen arms provided by September call-ups. Asked if he thought he could pitch this season, Matsuzaka replied, “of course.”
Matsuzaka’s services might be crucial. John Smoltz has yet to prove himself a strong part of the rotation, and Tim Wakefield will be on the disabled list for an indefinite amount of time. The need, Francona said, means the Sox won’t consider using him as a reliever.
“Three weeks ago, we had four too many starters,” Francona said. “Well, now we’re looking for starters. We want him to be a starter. I hope we get into September and there doesn’t seem like there’s any room for Daisuke. That would be the greatest thing ever. I don’t see that happening.”
Francona focused more on Matsuzaka’s first two seasons, when he won 36 games including the postseason, than on this season, when a fatigued arm led to horrendous numbers: a 1-5 record with an 8.23 ERA. The rocky year led to Matsuzaka’s venting, but, he said, it also forced him to evaluate what he must do in order to have prolonged success in America.
“I want to keep playing baseball for a long, long time,” Matsuzaka said. “I think those experiences I’ve had this year that have been difficult are all very, very important and very, very meaningful. And I think that precisely because there has been so much to learn, I just hope that I can take those lessons and apply them to my career down the line.”