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And so, Matsuzaka mania begins

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Really, I'd half expected Daisuke Matsuzaka to release his first pitch with a thunderbolt, turning the batter into a smoldering pile of cinder, the umpire raising his right hand, unsure.

"Uh, strike?"

By the end of the first inning, catcher Jason Varitek would have the raccoon-ish soot mask of a coal miner and later Terry Francona would say he thought Matsuzaka threw "free and easy and he'll probably be ready for 40 pitches next time out. And sorry about the incineration thing."

Instead, on a muggy Friday night at City of Palms Park, Matsuzaka lifted his red glove over his head, uncoiled from his deliberate windup, threw his first semi-official pitch for the Boston Red Sox and … a management school student and punter from Boston College hit it down the left-field line for a double.

To be fair, Johnny Ayers was probably looking gyroball.

Matsuzaka, who cost the Red Sox $103.1 million in posting fees and salary, threw 25 pitches over two innings in his spring debut, 19 of them strikes, and touched 93 mph with a fastball that generally arrived between 90 and 92. He allowed just the one baserunner – Ayers actually hit a 91-mph, get-ahead fastball – and struck out three.

"I am not 100 percent satisfied with how I pitched today," Matsuzaka said. "But, considering the time of the season … I'm OK with it right now."

So marks another step across the pond for Matsuzaka, being counted on to help the Red Sox overcome the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East. He'll stand with Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon and Tim Wakefield in a rotation thinned by injury and circumstance last season.

More than a dozen photographers bunched behind home plate for his first warm-up throws, while more than 100 reporters watched from the press box and beyond. NESN left its scheduled pre-game coverage of a college hockey game to broadcast Matsuzaka's innings back to the Boston area.

He was, as advertised, composed and aggressive, missing the strike zone only once in a first inning spent in the stretch for all but the first pitch. Red Sox manager Terry Francona has begun the process of integrating Matsuzaka with Varitek, and Matsuzaka shook off the veteran catcher only twice, both times into effective pitches.

"It was good," Varitek said. "It's still the first outing and still got a lot of ground to gain. But, it's a good start. … He made pitches with the fastball. He did all of the above. He pitched backward and he pitched ahead with his fastball.

"Hopefully, you continue to learn and keep building together."

Despite his high percentage of strikes, Matsuzaka said he was still gauging the major-league strike zone, on which he made little progress Friday night. The game was called by a college crew.

"So," Matsuzaka said, "I couldn't use that as a reference."

More than an hour before the early-evening game, the phenomenon that is Matsuzaka spilled across the plaza and into the streets in front of the little ballpark. His name in the lineup was applauded by the sellout crowd, and fans crowded into the left-field corner to watch him warm up in the bullpen.

Friday afternoon, his Red Sox teammate, Japanese countryman Hideki Okajima, had pitched in relief against the Blue Jays to much less fanfare.

Noting the difference in attention, he had smiled and said, "I'm willing to be a hero in the dark."

At which point all the reporters went to lie down and think that out.

Next up was Matsuzaka, a curious Red Sox Nation and a giddy Boston College team, whose annual appearance here is a season highlight. The Red Sox have a lot riding on Matsuzaka, who won 108 games in eight seasons in Japan.

"I'm excited," Francona had said. "I've never seen him pitch, except on video. For my sake, I hope he gets them out. Otherwise, I'm going to have to come in here and answer questions about why we signed him. I think he gets it. He knows people are watching."

Up stepped the left-handed-hitting Ayers, a 21-year-old junior enrolled in the Carroll School of Management and a punter on the Boston College football team. Before the game he said he was hoping for "something straight," and when it arrived just so Ayers flung it over third baseman Eric Hinske's head.

"I was just trying to take in the atmosphere, take a couple deep breaths and hope for the best," Ayers said.

When he floated into second base he was congratulated by both Red Sox middle infielders. Hinske offered the same at third.

"I think you got the 91-mph fastball," Hinske told Ayers. "He can pump it up to, like, 96."

A couple pitches later, Hinske leaned over and said, "Yup, there's the 96."

Asked if he knew he'd made the hearts of Red Sox fans pause with his first-pitch double, Ayers laughed and said, "I was kind of hoping the guys behind me would show it was money well spent."

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