Red Sox are armed for return to glory

Pressure is on pitcher Matsuzaka to deliver

March 31, 2007|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Sun reporter

FORT MYERS, FLA. -- It started here six weeks ago, with more than 200 members of the international media gathered to witness 2007's biggest baseball story.

The hype really hasn't let up, with cover pieces in Sports Illustrated, USA Today and the Sporting News, with daily dispatches throughout all of Japan and with 50 to 100 reporters and cameramen chronicling each of Daisuke Matsuzaka's spring starts.

Dice-K, as the 26-year-old right-hander is known, was going to be a phenomenon with whomever he joined. But he landed with the immensely popular Boston Red Sox for $103.1 million, including a $51.1 million posting fee simply for the opportunity to negotiate a contract.

Japan, the United States and the greater baseball world have never seen anything quite like this before - not even when Japan's best hitter, Ichiro Suzuki, joined the Seattle Mariners in 2001.

"The attention from the Japanese media is the same [as Ichiro's]. The difference is the American media," said Hideki Okuda, a reporter with Sports Nippon Newspaper in Tokyo who has covered American baseball for two decades.

"It's a huge difference because of the Red Sox and their media and the New York media showing up. I think with Ichiro in Seattle it was different because Seattle is not a big media town. And I think the money is a big reason why, $100 million."

Matsuzaka has been a household name in Japan since he went unbeaten in his final year of high school and pitched a no-hitter in the famous Koshien Tournament. But whether Matsuzaka, who throws six pitches for strikes - not including the mysterious and perhaps nonexistent gyroball - will emerge as a Major League Baseball star is debatable.

One American League scout doesn't think he'll be more than a No. 3 starter once big league hitters figure out his various arm angles. A National League scout predicts his expansive pitching arsenal will keep hitters at bay all season.

"I am sure he is going to be very good, but he is going to have some moments where he's going to feel he threw good pitches and they got hit," one AL general manager said. "But if I were the Red Sox and I were in their situation, I think I'd do the same thing."

Another American League GM said: "He has the stuff and the ability, the only question is how is he going to withstand the rigors of pitching every fifth day and the high expectations from the Boston fan base? If this guy wins any less than 20 games, he'll be deemed a failure there. That's unfair, but that's the reality of it."

In actuality, Matsuzaka may not need to be more than a No. 3 starter for the Red Sox to reach the postseason. The staff is anchored by workhorse Curt Schilling (15-7, 3.97 ERA in 2006), who is reportedly healthy, and Josh Beckett (16-11, 5.01), who is in his second year with the club. Veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is the fourth starter, and excitable right-hander Julian Tavarez is penciled in at the fifth spot.

The rotation could have been deeper, but Jonathan Papelbon, last year's closer, decided in late March to scrap his starting experiment and head back to the role in which he dominated last season as a rookie.

"Deep down in my heart I felt like this is my niche," Papelbon said of closing. "This is what I do and I have to follow my heart."

Papelbon's decision fills Boston's biggest void and probably makes the Red Sox the favorite in the AL East after a third-place finish last season. Unhappy with not making the playoffs despite baseball's second biggest payroll in 2006, Boston management signed Matsuzaka, right fielder J.D. Drew and shortstop Julio Lugo.

"Good teams eliminate the question marks because at some point over a long year you have question marks and people will exploit them," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "We need to play good baseball, but I think our clubhouse is special. There is a lot of attention, a lot of hoping in Boston and the guys handle it and handle it well."

Perhaps the biggest key for the Red Sox this year is Drew, a talented but injury-prone player who replaced popular Trot Nixon in right field. If healthy, he should put up monster offensive numbers hitting behind David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.

"I have been completely healthy the past three years other than a broken wrist [in July 2005]. So, yeah, that whole story is way in the past," Drew said.

Drew will be playing under a searing spotlight he didn't really experience in St. Louis' one-newspaper market or with Los Angeles' laid-back fan base. Boston, however, is a unique market for a baseball player.

Yet no one will be scrutinized more than Matsuzaka, who is a front-page sports story in Japan when he throws a side session.

So far, though, it doesn't seem to be a distraction for him or for the Red Sox.

"The Japanese media are here to cover him, they are not here to cover us," Wakefield said. "They have been really respectful and it hasn't really been as bad as I expected it to be.

"But as far as he is concerned, he has handled this ever since he was 17."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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