Overcoming hype, O's top Matsuzaka, Red Sox

Knott, Dubois homer off Japanese sensation in 5-3 win

March 12, 2007|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN REPORTER

FORT MYERS, FLA. -- Melvin Mora stumbled across home plate, stood in the opposite side of the batter's box and collected his thoughts, rather than a hit. Jay Gibbons took two bad swings and flung his bat and helmet toward the visiting dugout.

For one inning, the Orioles' attempts to get to Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka got lost in translation. They looked bad. They looked confused. They looked frustrated enough to board the team bus early - say, before the second inning - and head back to Fort Lauderdale.

But once the game was halfway over, it became clear that Matsuzaka might have lots of substance, but he won't always match the hype.

Jon Knott led off the third inning with a home run, and Jason Dubois added a two-run shot in the fourth - two minor league free agents with modest credentials who played major roles in the Orioles' 5-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox.

Making his second exhibition start, not counting an appearance against Boston College in Fort Myers, Matsuzaka threw 63 pitches before veteran Julian Tavarez replaced him. He broke out his much-publicized gyroball that was the subject of a cover story in the Sporting News. He looked unhittable at times, ordinary on other occasions.

"It's like this mythological thing that's taken on its own life," said Orioles right fielder Adam Stern, who singled in the third inning.

About 25 reporters, most of them from Japan, crammed into the visiting clubhouse after the sixth inning and circled every Oriole who dared to enter. Jeff Fiorentino walked in, smiled and shook his head. Rather than wait for the predictable first question about Matsuzaka, Brian Roberts went to his locker and said, to nobody in particular, "Fastball, curveball, slider, changeup."

Asked whether he was providing a scouting report, Roberts said, "Fastball, curveball, slider ... gyro. Supposedly."

"He's got good stuff. Shoot, you don't give guys $50 million for nothing," Roberts said. "He threw everything for strikes at different times in the count. He mixed it up. He's here for a reason, but we have a job to do, too. It's really just another day."

Another day when an exhibition game is covered like the World Series. Japanese reporters carried video cameras. One guy had a boom mike.

"I understand the hype," Roberts said. "It's good for the league. It's good to have that kind of excitement."

The consensus among Orioles is that the gyroball is a changeup, but it's still open for debate.

"I don't know what I hit. I just know that ball moves," said Miguel Tejada, who flied to deep left and singled against Matsuzaka, the pitcher who cost the Red Sox $51.1 million in a negotiating fee and $52 million to sign. "I don't know if it's the gyroball or a slider he threw me. He's pretty good."

"It turns over like a screwball," said Buck Martinez, a former major league catcher and manager who's now part of the Orioles' television broadcast team. "It's a pretty good pitch."

Said Roberts: "Some people said split, some people said change. Maybe he throws both. I have no idea."

Mora can't identify the pitch, but he's willing to offer his perspective on it.

"It's not from this planet," he said.

Mora struck out swinging in the first inning and was caught looking in the third, pausing to dispute the call with plate umpire Marvin Hudson.

"I went to home plate with no idea what I was doing. I was just waiting to see what he's got," said Mora, who joined the media throng for the Dubois interview after borrowing a notepad and pen.

"I think the second strike was a little inside, but this guy knows what he's doing. He's nasty. Fastball, nasty. Breaking pitch, nasty. Splitter, nasty. Everything's good."

Dubois, who drove a fastball over the fence to break a 2-2 tie, walked into the clubhouse to grab two Tylenols as the game continued and immediately was surrounded by reporters. Seconds earlier, a team spokesman jokingly told him: "You don't know what's waiting for you."

"I put a pretty good swing on it and made contact. That's all I was trying to do," Dubois said. "He's got a pretty good slider. He's a pretty tough pitcher. We just got to him in that one inning."

Knott also homered on a fastball, his first hit in 13 at-bats this spring.

"It was the last thing on my mind," he said. "I've been pressing a little bit the last couple days. I was just trying to get a knock.

"He spotted up three different pitches I saw - fastball, curveball, slider. I tried to watch him warm up and I was trying not to do too much. That can only get you in trouble, especially off somebody who has that kind of stuff."

They might not get noticed again the rest of spring training, but for one afternoon, in a game that otherwise meant nothing, Dubois and Knott tamed a Seibu Lion. And there were plenty of witnesses.

"I could get used to this," said Knott, still surrounded by reporters. "That would be nice."

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

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