Matsuzaka is not bad, for starters
By Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports
April 5, 2007
For those who questioned the Boston Red Sox spending $103 million to bring him to Major League Baseball from Japan, here was a strikeout. To others who wondered how he would adjust to the greatest league in the world, here was an inning-ending double play. And if those weren't convincing enough, here was his entire repertoire of pitches, emptied out for the Kansas City Royals and still unscathed by the end of the afternoon.
While his final line sparkled – seven innings, six hits, one run, one walk, 10 strikeouts and a win in the 4-1 victory – nary a number could define what Matsuzaka had accomplished over his 108 pitches. It transcended any language barrier.
Here I am, he said with his gait.
Hit me if you can, he said with his stare.
"Up to now," Matsuzaka said, "given all the expectations that have surrounded me, I felt happy about those expectations at the same time feeling that, perhaps, they were a little bit extreme."
Perhaps? No player had entered baseball with such a burden since Michael Jordan tried and failed to hit Double-A curveballs. Expectations are like puff pastry, thin layers stacked by the dozens that expand under heat and pressure.
Cook too long and they'll burn.
Only Matsuzaka seems impervious, his skin Teflon-coated. At 26 years old, he has lived the life of a teen pop star: practically sainted at 18 after helping his high school win Koshien, the national baseball tournament that is equivalent to the NCAA tournament, and almost instantaneously a national celebrity thereafter, and forever since a national hero worthy of staying up until 3 a.m. to see his first pitch.
It was a fastball, 93 mph, fouled off by David DeJesus. Matsuzaka threw it quick from his molasses windup, in which he seems to will his limbs forward. It's a delivery comparable to Roger Clemens', though every measurement of Matsuzaka tends to be against an all-time great, whether his slider is like John Smoltz's or his fastball like Tom Seaver's.
"The expectations, from what I've heard so far, are unreachable," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He's got this thing figured out better than anybody else. He loves to pitch. He enjoys the heck out of the game. And he's pretty damn good."
Kansas City will attest. Once Matsuzaka found his rhythm, it was like he was dancing on the mound, his arm twirling in step. In the fourth inning, he struck out the Royals' Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters on 14 pitches. He blew away rookie Alex Gordon with a 95-mph fastball one at-bat and stymied Ryan Shealy with an 82-mph curveball on the next.
Wherever catcher Jason Varitek asked for the ball – inside, outside, up, down – Matsuzaka found the target like a dart thrower hitting treble 20s.
"It's tough adapting to his style at different times," Varitek said. "He's not locked into any one pitch in any one count and he doesn't favor either side of the plate. It makes me have to think ahead."
To force Varitek, one of the game's great minds, to truly use his cleverness takes some kind of talent. Matsuzaka's is good enough that Varitek was blaming himself for the day's lone gaffe, a DeJesus home run to lead off the sixth inning.
"I think it was a gyroball," DeJesus said.
He was joking, of course, playing into the Matsuzaka mythology. Even though he doesn't throw the gyroball – a pitch long and erroneously attributed to him – it will accompany Matsuzaka everywhere he goes, and so long as it gets into hitters' heads, it's for his benefit.
In this manner, the expectations have created an air of invincibility around Matsuzaka, one that simultaneously invokes a fear of him – of the unknown – while adding incentive to crack him, like he's some sort of unbreakable code.
"We would've liked to be the team that hit him, that knocked him around, especially with this being his first game out," Shealy said. "We weren't. And a lot of teams are going to say the same thing."
The Royals, a team destined for at least 90 losses, were still stupefied an hour after the game. DeJesus knows he hit a fastball for a home run but wasn't sure what else Matsuzaka threw. Shealy couldn't correctly identify the pitches. Catcher John Buck thought he saw two or three.
Behind home plate, scouts consulted with one another to figure out what was what. The consensus was seven pitches: a straight four-seam fastball that rides up to 95 mph, a sinking two-seam fastball that sits at 91, a cut fastball that jumps in on the hands of left-handers around 91, a curveball that spins slowly at 72 or tight at 78, a classic changeup at 80, a power slider at 86 and a shuuto, the Japanese pitch that sinks like a screwball, at 81.
"But I don't care about the pitches," said Art Stewart, the Royals scout in his 55th year of organized baseball. "Kid's got moxie. He's got something, all right."
The world in the palm of his hand for one. His next start comes Tuesday in Boston, where the cheers will be even greater than those for Manny Ramirez or David Ortiz, and he faces the Seattle Mariners, the team of Ichiro Suzuki, Japan's greatest success in the major leagues and, like Matsuzaka, still idolized in his home nation.
Frankly, it would have been the perfect setting for his first start. Instead, Matsuzaka steeled himself to pitch for a half-empty ballpark in 36-degree weather against a team that lost 100 games last season.
"It was really such a normal day for me," Matsuzaka said, and though his words came through interpreter Masa Hoshino, they sounded genuine.
"When I look back, my first start at Koshien, there was definitely something emotional about that day," Matsuzaka said. "As for today – the day I've been waiting for a very long time – even given that fact, it felt surprisingly normal."
Because he was here.
He had asked the Royals to hit him.
And he wasn't just fairly certain they couldn't.
He knew it.
Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Friday, Apr 6, 2007 3:27 am, EDT