|Daisuke Matsuzaka a big hit in return to homeland|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 21 March 2008 00:23|
One country was back in the throes of Dice-K mania.
Daisuke Matsuzaka stood at the edge of the Tokyo Dome dugout after Friday's workout as photographers clicked away, a national treasure coming back as a World Series champion to the field where he made his pro debut eight years ago as an 18-year-old fireballer.
The same field where he will pitch in the very first game of the major league season Tuesday for the Boston Red Sox against the Oakland Athletics.
``After I went to the U.S. I thought that perhaps one day I'd have the opportunity to pitch a game here in Japan, but I certainly didn't expect it to happen here in the second year'' of his major league career, Dice-K said through a translator Friday.
``When we found out that we most likely would be coming to Japan part way through last season, at that point I very strongly felt that I'd like to come back here as a World Series champion.''
He did, in part because of his strong performance in Game 3 of Boston's four-game sweep of Colorado in his rookie year.
A back injury to Josh Beckett gave Matsuzaka the chance to start - another milestone in his long, expensive journey that brought him from the Seibu Lions where he starred for eight years (at a total cost to the Red Sox of $103.1) to Boston and back home again.
``That's going to be a tremendous reception for him to have that opportunity to (pitch) an opening game of the entire season,'' said Boston catcher Jason Varitek.
First both teams will warm up with two exhibition games this weekend against Nippon Professional Baseball teams.
On Saturday, Boston faces the Hanshin Tigers in the afternoon then Oakland meets the Yomiuri Giants. On Sunday, Boston meets Yomiuri and Oakland takes on Hanshin.
``They are just peers of ours,'' Oakland closer Huston Street said of the Red Sox. ``We're definitely not intimidated. We came over here and we expect to win. To have the World Series champions here is nice for the series, but we want to win.''
Matsuzaka will face Joe Blanton in the opener, then Jon Lester pitches against Oakland's Rich Harden on Wednesday night. The teams return to the United States after the game.
It's a grueling journey - jet lag, a strange stadium and a break in the routine of athletes whose lives are built around routines.
No matter. There are two regular season games to be won.
``Whether it's in Tokyo. Whether it's in Tampa Bay, wherever the schedule tells us to go we want to go play the game correctly,'' Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. ``You will never hear an excuse.''
The season began in Japan twice before - in 2000 with the New York Mets playing the Chicago Cubs and in 2004 with the New York Yankees facing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Both two-game series ended in splits.
Francona wouldn't mind a split either, as long as his team's two wins come against Oakland.
``It's hard to play two games that don't count in your record then, boom, the next two that do,'' he said. ``We can go 2-2 on this trip and be thrilled or (upset).''
Francona already is a winner on the trip. To pass time during the 18-four flight from Boston's spring training base in Fort Myers, Fla., the club held a cribbage tournament.
``That's a stupid question,'' the manager said. ``Who came in second?''
That was rookie shortstop Jed Lowrie, and Francona said he wasn't close. Jonathan Papelbon won the poker tournament, but he brought his own chips.
``Guys catnapped and kind of did their thing,'' Francona said. ``We did OK.''
Dice-K might have passed the time looking at pictures of his son, born just last Saturday. Had he arrived later, he might not have traveled with the team or even might have skipped the four games.
``It was not easy leaving my newborn son behind, and I certainly felt some sadness and loneliness parting ways with him,'' he said, ``but my family were very supportive of me throughout this and they sent me off with very strong encouragement.''
Last year, Matsuzaka was 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA as he coped with a new country, a different language and strange batters. This spring has been less stressful.
He worked to build his pitch count so he could pitch deep into the opening game. As a 17-year-old in the very popular Koshien high school tournament, he threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning game.
Japanese fans want to see as much of Matsuzaka as they can before he leaves again.
``If I can keep focusing on some of the things I've been working on I'll naturally be able to go deep into the game,'' he said.
Matsuzaka should be fresh after an eventful year in which his life came full circle - leaving Japan for Boston, winning a World Series, becoming a father for the second time and returning to his homeland.
``It feels good to be back and I certainly slept well last night,'' he said. ``I'm glad to be here.''
Notes: Red Sox pitchers Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Mike Timlin and Bryan Corey visited troops and their family members at the US Army Base Camp Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture. They signed autographs and posed for pictures. ... Timlin's availability for the four games is uncertain. He had stitches in his right ring finger after it was hit by a ball in a minor league game Wednesday.