O's successfully weather trip into Matsuzaka media storm

The Kickoff

March 12, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

Fort Myers, Fla. -- The curiosity was mutual.

Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka said before yesterday's game that he was looking forward to his start against the Orioles to see how he would do against Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora and the other veteran hitters in the Baltimore lineup.

The Orioles brought six regulars to City of Palms Park to see the pitcher who sparked an international bidding war and cost the Red Sox a total of $103 million in negotiating fees and guaranteed salary.

Fans of the counterintuitive will be happy to know it was Matsuzaka who came away the more impressed after giving up two home runs in his first preseason defeat, though nobody in the Orioles' clubhouse had anything but praise for the young pitcher who already has led Boston and its South Florida spring training suburb to go Dice-K crazy.

"He's got good stuff," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "Shoot, you don't give guys $50 million for nothing. ... He's here for a reason, but we have a job to do, too."

Actually, the curiosity is universal.

It was standing room only for Matsuzaka's home Grapefruit League debut, and the contingent of Japanese media covering the game -- an exhibition game, remember -- numbered close to triple figures. There were even a few VIP sightings, including the incongruous appearance of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick sitting in the Red Sox's dugout during the game.

The sellout crowd was dotted with fans young and old in brand-new Matsuzaka T-shirts, which feature his name and No. 18 on the back and "Red Sox" translated into Japanese on the front. Sales of Dice-K merchandise also are reportedly brisk at Red Sox souvenir shops near Fenway Park.

If anyone still doubts Major League Baseball's commitment to globalization, the Shan-San spicy crab rolls on the third base concourse were delicious.

The Red Sox paid a huge premium to add Matsuzaka to a starting rotation that already includes Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon and Tim Wakefield. The fee they paid to the Seibu Lions for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka was $51.1 million, and it took an additional $52 million to sign him to a six-year contract.

That's a tremendous price for an unproven major league pitcher -- and it will be hard to recoup because international MLB revenues are split evenly among the 30 franchises, but the signing clearly raised the club's Asian profile, which could pay off in more imported talent in the future.

The Red Sox have set up a media tent down the left-field line to accommodate the huge influx of Pacific Rim reporters. About 90 covered yesterday's game, but team officials say they have issued about 125 credentials to foreign media since the start of spring training.

Dozens crowded into the visiting clubhouse after the game to hear what the Orioles had to say about American baseball's newest international superstar. Mora walked by the crowd at Tejada's locker and couldn't resist.

"Hey, he doesn't speak Japanese," Mora said.

The Orioles were eager to see Matsuzaka's signature secret pitch -- the gyroball -- and they came away impressed. The pitch apparently is a modified screwball that he uses to change speeds, and he made several hitters look awkward early in the game.

"I guess we saw it a few times," manager Sam Perlozzo said. "I don't know what that thing is, but I'm guessing that's his changeup. He's got a good arm, a good assortment of pitches. If he throws the ball over the plate, he's got enough stuff to win."

Matsuzaka had made two other preseason starts, one against Boston College and the other against the young Florida Marlins in Jupiter. He was eager to face a more dangerous lineup -- and the Orioles proved to be that with a three-run rally in the fourth inning -- but it wasn't Miggy or Melvin who made him look like a mere mortal.

It was a couple of minor league journeymen, Jon Knott and Jason Dubois, who took Dice-K deep to center, but Matsuzaka explained that away as the result of some "experimentation" in the rocky third and fourth innings.

"I felt it was important to experience their hitters firsthand," Matsuzaka said through an interpreter. "And in the third and fourth innings, I had a chance to experiment a little bit."

What did he learn?

"I learned from my experimentation," he said, "that the high fastball and the high slider are very dangerous in this league."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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