Dice-K takes mound in Japan on Tuesday

Dice-K takes mound in Japan on Tuesday

Dice-K takes mound in Japan on Tuesday
By ASSOCIATED PRESS

TOKYO (AP) -Daisuke Matsuzaka has traveled the globe pitching in big games - the Olympics, the World Baseball Classic, the World Series.

He's won many of them without blinking in the glare of the spotlight.

Now comes another, the first game of the major league baseball season and he's back where it all began, in Japan. Adoring fans in his home town await his return to the Tokyo Dome mound in the uniform of the champion Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night.

''I think it's an emotional game for him because he's going to be fired up and the crowd's probably going to be crazy and rooting for him,'' Boston's Mike Lowell said Monday, ''which is good for us.''

Dice-K will face the Oakland Athletics and right-hander Joe Blanton in the earliest season opener in major league history. The next night, it will be Boston's Jon Lester against Rich Harden.

Just one regular season game out of 162 isn't as big as the 2006 WBC, where Matsuzaka was MVP after Japan won the tournament. It certainly can't measure up to his strong performances last year in Game 7 of the AL championship series and Game 3 of the World Series or playing in the 2004 Olympics in Australia.

So nerves shouldn't be a factor for a pitcher who has succeeded so often under pressure and rarely shows emotion on the mound.

Right?

''It's human nature in a big game to be nervous,'' Lowell said. ''You can be nervous and confident. But this ice in your veins, man of steel, I don't believe it. No one's this robot, not Dice-K, not anyone.''

Besides, Oakland manager Bob Geren doesn't expect Blanton to be intimidated by facing a national treasure who emerged as a solid starter as a rookie last year in a strange league.

''He is a very good pitcher,'' Geren said of Dice-K at a news conference Monday with Blanton, ''and so is the guy sitting next to me.''

After eight years as a star with the Seibu Lions, Matsuzaka signed a six-year, $52 million contract with Boston, which paid $51.1 million simply for the right to negotiate with him.

He was 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA last year with 201 strikeouts in 204 1-3 innings, and Boston won its second championship in four years. Blanton finished at 14-10 with a 3.95 ERA, but Oakland had its first losing season in nine years.

Matsuzaka got the opening day nod because Red Sox ace Josh Beckett remained at the team's camp in Fort Myers, Fla., because of a back injury that should keep him out about 10 more days. Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez stayed home after having three operations in the last six months.

Matsuzaka took the loss in his only game against them, 2-0 on June 5 in Oakland. Former Boston pitcher Lenny DiNardo got the win despite walking six in six innings.

''I beat him, once,'' DiNardo said. ''He's a superstar around here and I'm sure it's going to be a big, rowdy crowd.''

The teams warmed up by playing two exhibition games, against the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants, and going 2-0. After Wednesday's game, each team has three more exhibition contests - Boston at the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland against the San Francisco Giants.

Then they wrap up the opening four-game series in Oakland on April 1 and 2.

Red Sox players ''try to prepare as a normal series even if were not in the normal place to play,'' Boston manager Terry Francona said.

That they're far from home was ear-splittingly obvious during the exhibition games when drums and chants came from the left field seats whenever Yomiuri, which plays its home games in the Dome, or Hanshin was at bat.

''It's nice to hear the Japanese way of cheering after a long time,'' said Matsuzaka, who will be in the middle of all that noise Tuesday night.

Beyond a written statement, he had no public comments Sunday or Monday. It was a respite for what Francona figures is a very busy schedule for the hometown hero.

The manager hasn't spent much off-field time with Matsuzaka.

''I don't need to have Dice-K as a personal chauffeur,'' Francona said. ''I'm sure he's got people pulling at him every which way.''

Once the game starts, the side issues should disappear. It will be Matsuzaka facing Oakland batters and Blanton trying to retire David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.

The bedlam beneath the Dome will be less important than the self-assurance of the returning champion on the mound.

''He's confident in his abilities,'' Lowell said, ''and I think when you have that, it lends itself to do well when games are important. He's pitched well in big games before, and there's no reason why he shouldn't be able to do it again.''

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