Archive for Thursday, April 5, 2007

Dice-K mania hits K.C.

Ballyhooed rookie to make debut today

April 5, 2007

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Boston pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka walks out of the dugout as a crowd of Japanese and American media cover his entrance before the Royals' 7-1 loss Wednesday. Matsuzaka will make his major-league debut tonight.

Boston pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka walks out of the dugout as a crowd of Japanese and American media cover his entrance before the Royals' 7-1 loss Wednesday. Matsuzaka will make his major-league debut tonight.

Daisuke Matsuzaka observes pregame activities from the dugout prior to the opening-day game between Kansas City and Boston on Monday in Kansas City, Mo.

Daisuke Matsuzaka observes pregame activities from the dugout prior to the opening-day game between Kansas City and Boston on Monday in Kansas City, Mo.

— Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima only made it a couple of steps out of the visitor's clubhouse before the throng of Japanese media descended upon him. Reporters shouted questions, camera crews captured every move.

The scene surrounding Boston's rookie earlier this week is a toned-down version of what's expected today, when Daisuke Matsuzaka makes his major-league debut against the Kansas City Royals.

"He's definitely the real deal," Red Sox pitcher Kyle Snyder said. "I was impressed from Day One. He's very serious about his job."

So much so that Matsuzaka has a policy of not speaking to reporters the day before he pitches. And if anybody in the Royals starting lineup has him figured out, they sure weren't willing to tell anyone.

"From what I hear, he's got really outstanding stuff, command of several pitches," Mark Grudzielanek said. "It's great for the game to have somebody come in with all the buildup."

The 26-year-old with the catchy nickname Dice-K is generating plenty of buzz in a city where opening day often is the only sellout and interest in the Royals routinely wanes by early June.

Boston pitching coach John Farrell doesn't anticipate a huge crowd and about 200 members of the media - including 127 from Japan - to cause much of a stir for a young man who has been in the public view for years.

Farrell also isn't worried about the fatigue Matsuzaka experienced late in spring training, saying he felt good after a bullpen session on Tuesday. Farrell's only concern is an expected gametime temperature in the low 50s.

"He has pitched in cold weather. It's been on rare occasions because their home ballpark was a dome," Farrell said. "But the one great thing about pitching on a cold day is the warmest guy in the field is the starting pitcher."

And if you consider the intense spotlight Matsuzaka has been under since arriving in Kansas City, he should already be plenty warm.

Royals officials convinced Red Sox manager Terry Francona to let them know in advance when Dice-K would be pitching so they could be better prepared for the media. Two volunteer translators, one a pitcher from the University of Kansas, are on hand.

"This series already has the feel of a league championship series," Royals spokesman Mike Swanson said after Kansas City defeated Boston 7-1 on opening day.

That day was marked as much by Okajima's first appearance and Curt Schilling's short outing as by the dozens of photographers positioned three-deep down the left-field line, snapping pictures of Matsuzaka while he stretched. Hundreds of shutters clapped every time he stirred along the outfield wall.

Even when Dice-K isn't speaking, he's making news.

"There is going to be many, many attention Thursday when he pitches," said Masanori Hirose of the Japanese daily Chunichi Shimbun, who followed Yankees star Hideki Matsui last season and said Dice-K is already the most popular player in his home country.

The game starts at 1:10 p.m. local time, which means Matsuzaka will unload his first pitch shortly after 2 a.m. in Japan. The expectations are enormous for Dice-K, the MVP of the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Dice-K's legend began in high school, when he threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning complete game in Koshien, the national tournament. He pitched the next day in relief, then threw a no-hitter on the third consecutive day to win the championship.

Matsuzaka signed with the Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League after high school, his charm and cherubic nature instantly endearing him to a baseball-crazed nation. Over eight years he went 108-60 with a 2.95 ERA.

"He keeps getting bigger and bigger and getting more popular," said Yoshiki Sasaki, who has been covering Matsuzaka since 2002 for the Japanese newspaper Hochi Shimbun. "Japan saw Matsuzaka getting big."

He throws at least six pitches - not counting that mystical (mythical?) gyroball - and a fastball clocked in the mid-90s.

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