Some Japanese players have had no trouble being successful in major leagues while others haven’t been quite as fortunate. The Boston Red Sox paid a hefty price for Daisuke Matsuzaka with the belief he can be a star in North America.
Matsuzaka makes his highly-anticipated major league debut Thursday as the Red Sox complete a season-opening three-game series with the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium.
Matsuzaka, the MVP of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, is the latest Japanese star to attempt to make the transition to the majors, bringing extremely high expectations - for which the Red Sox paid a very high price.
Boston (1-1) won the bidding for the rights to Matsuzaka, posting a record-setting $51.1 million fee to the Seibu Lions before agreeing to a $52 million, six-year contract with the 26-year-old right-hander on Dec. 13.
A dominant pitcher for eight seasons in Japan, where he was 108-60 with a 2.95 ERA, the Red Sox have Matsuzaka pitching their third game of the season, but there’s little doubt that he is expected to become the staff ace very quickly.
“Within myself, there is maybe a baseline for success,” Matsuzaka said through a translator. “I have certain expectations toward myself but, as for giving you a hard number (of wins), what that might be, that’s something I can’t do.”
Dealing with major league hitters only is part of what Matsuzaka will face this season. He also has to contend with the hype surrounding him and intense spotlight from the Japanese media, which will have more than 130 members on hand Thursday to document every move.
“The one thing he’s shown us, because he has pitched on such a high stage, for lack of a better term, since the age of 17, is his relaxation and his mound presence to deal with the attention and the spotlight,” Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said. “I think he feels very much at home in this environment.”
Matsuzaka’s skills were evident in spring training, where he looked dominant at times and finished a streak of 10 hitless innings and a 2.04 ERA.
Royals first baseman Ryan Shealy doesn’t expect to see anything from Matsuzaka that he hasn’t seen before.
“We’ve got a ton of good pitchers over here, so it’s not like he’s going to be throwing stuff that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “I watched him throw on ESPN. It looks like he’s got good command. It looks like he throws a lot of strikes with offspeed stuff. But we are the first team to get to face him, so it is exciting.”
At least Matsuzaka won’t have to worry about pitching the Red Sox to their first win of the season. Josh Beckett allowed two hits through five innings in a 7-1 victory over the Royals (1-1) on Wednesday night. J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell hit back-to-back doubles in a three-run first inning for Boston, which ended a six-game losing streak at Kansas City.
It’s been a rough two games for Royals rookie third baseman Alex Gordon. The 2006 minor league player of the year is 0-for-7 with four strikeouts and hasn’t hit a ball out of the infield.
“This kid’s going to be a heck of a player,” Royals manager Buddy Bell said. “He’s trying like the devil to get his first hit. A lot of us have been there. Once he gets that out of the way, he’ll be fine.”
Overshadowed by Matsuzaka’s debut is Royals starter Zack Greinke, who missed almost all of last season due to social anxiety disorder.
Greinke showed promised during a strong rookie season in 2004 but slumped to 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA in 2005. He made only three relief appearances last season, going 1-0 with a 4.26 ERA.
Greinke, who went 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in six spring games, will be making his first start since Sept. 30, 2005. He allowed five runs over seven innings in a 5-2 loss to the Red Sox on Aug. 23, 2005 in his only appearance against them.