A roll of the Dice

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

Forty-eight hours at Scott Boras Corp. headquarters certainly reminded no one of Thanksgiving dinner in Paradise Valley, Ariz., three years before – the last time Theo Epstein boarded a jet in search of a starting pitcher.

But these westward expeditions have become a signature, and ultimately fruitful tactic, of the Boston Red Sox general manager. A GM who once talked Curt Schilling out of his no-trade clause over pumpkin pie, and who, on Wednesday afternoon, was winging back to Boston with the final piece of his starting rotation at his side.

As the Boston Globe's second-by-second countdown ticked anxiously toward Thursday night's midnight EST deadline for the Red Sox to come to an agreement with right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, and with Japanese and American baseball and the Sons of Sam Horn leaning in, Epstein had collected what he had come for. Matsuzaka agreed to a six-year contract that will pay him at least $52 million Wednesday afternoon, passed his physical Wednesday night and will be introduced at a press conference in Boston on Thursday afternoon.

Matsuzaka, the 17-game winner for the Seibu Lions and MVP of the World Baseball Classic, turned 26 three months ago. If he is not the most major-league ready player to come out of Japan, or second to Ichiro, or third to Hideki Matsui and Ichiro, or fourth to Hideo Nomo, Matsui and Ichiro, he will be paid like it.

He will pitch in a city that drinks its baseball by the schooner, be its new Pedro, cover the 2006 season with hopes for 2007 and elevate Epstein again to wonderboy rank.

As long as he's good.

And everyone says he is.

Which makes it all the more important that he be good.

From his wiry, 6-foot-1 frame, D-Mat generates 96 mph fastballs, but that is not all. According to a major-league scout who saw Matsuzaka pitch at least a dozen times, both during the season in Japan and at the World Baseball Classic, "He has plus stuff across the board."

But, that's not all.

Matsuzaka has seen the likes of Boston before. He has seen packed houses, been set upon by rigorous expectations, held them all in the fingers of his right hand. He arrived in Japanese professional baseball as LeBron James did the NBA, as Tiger Woods did the PGA Tour.

And now Boston, where its 2004 World Series title, subtitled "Now I Can Die in Peace," accomplished nothing of the sort.

Certainly not for Epstein, who spent last winter half in and half out of a gorilla suit before receiving assurances he'd be king of the organizational jungle, only to end the season 11 games behind the New York Yankees and out of the playoffs.

And certainly not for Red Sox Nation, which grew annoyed as former Sox relievers Cla Meredith and Scott Cassidy blossomed in San Diego, anxious as its starting rotation buckled, frustrated as the trading deadline passed without an upgrade while the Yankees acquired Bobby Abreu, and irritated as a mid-summer lead disappeared, Manny Ramirez with it.

The early off-season brought right fielder J.D. Drew and shortstop Julio Lugo to mixed reviews, along with farewells to favorites Trot Nixon and Gabe Kapler, and then the month-long staring contest with Boras.

As starting pitching came and went – Jason Schmidt to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Andy Pettitte to the Yankees, Freddy Garcia to the Philadelphia Phillies, Ted Lilly to the Chicago Cubs – Epstein and the Red Sox were all in on Matsuzaka, and praying Roger Clemens or Barry Zito might be there if Boras bluffed Matsuzaka all the way back to Seibu.

For as long as Ramirez stayed put, feeding David Ortiz fastballs and keeping Drew out of the middle of the lineup, the Red Sox, Epstein knew, would score runs. It was the 5.00 earned-run average by his starters last season that had to set his winter course and drove the Red Sox to bid $51.1 million, well more than the Yankees and New York Mets, for negotiating rights to Matsuzaka.

And so on Wednesday, with a handshake deal for Matsuzaka done, and having spent at least $103 million for a reasonably comfortable cross-country flight, Epstein and the rest of Red Sox management had their man.

"He'll step right into that rotation, at no worse than No. 2," the major-league scout said. "He's got five pitches, throws a ton of strikes and is very aggressive on the inner half. He is not a passive pitcher. He doesn't give in. He's just entering his prime and yet young enough to make changes if he has to. Sometimes it's hard to change when your skills are regressing, but his aren't."

Buck Martinez managed Team USA in the WBC, where Matsuzaka won all three of his decisions, including the title game against Cuba.

"Poise, confidence, and a great arm in a 26-year-old body," Martinez wrote by email. "Pretty good package. The concern many people have is the hype that comes with the contract and the franchise. I don't think this will be a problem because he has been preparing for this his entire life. He is like Matsui and Ichiro in his ability to focus on the task at hand and block out any distractions. Culturally, the Japanese players have played and practiced under totally different rules and discipline. I believe this contract will be a very worthwhile and productive relationship for the player and the team."

Martinez added at the end, "How about that first D-Mat/Godzilla matchup in the Bronx? Should be a real party."

Matsuzaka joins Schilling, Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon and Tim Wakefield in the rotation, assuming the Red Sox' ninth-inning vacancy doesn't draw Papelbon back to the bullpen. The Red Sox last month fired pitching coach Dave Wallace, who'd deftly steered Nomo's transition to the major leagues with the Dodgers more than a decade ago, but Schilling, Beckett and Wakefield have the stature and wherewithal to draw pressure away from Matsuzaka.

As important, according to the scout, is that he'll throw to Jason Varitek, the veteran catcher who has nudged far lesser talents than Matsuzaka through big-league lineups.

There will be adjustments, for sure. Japanese pitchers often find the baseball used in major-league games to be too slick, initially affecting their offspeed pitches. Also, the season in Japan has fewer games, and Japanese pitchers don't pitch as often. Matsuzaka is a good athlete, however, whose legend grew from, among other things, throwing a 250-pitch game in high school. The routine of pitching every five days, therefore, will come easy.

"Most people don't understand the changes he's about to undertake," the scout said. "But, he's got Varitek, and that'll be like having a pitching coach sitting beside him. He'll adapt."

He should. He'd better.

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