FORT MYERS, Fla. -- One of the great things about the pre- game phase of spring training is "live batting practice." It's when hitters step into the batting cage and try to hit real big league pitching. The hurlers give them the courtesy of telling them what's coming, but the ball isn't lobbed into their wheelhouse.
And reporters and fans can get closer to the plate than at any time during the regular season.
Stand near the cage for live batting practice and you come away with new admiration for major league hitters. As in, "How do they stand in there and how do they ever make contact?"
Truly. The game looks so easy on television. It never looks easy when you stand around for live batting practice.
Yesterday, those of us at the Red Sox complex were treated to one of the most closely watched live BPs in baseball history. Tripods were lined up in foul territory on the third base side on Johnny Pesky Field, and hundreds of fans and reporters stood around to watch Daisuke Matsuzaka pitch to major league hitters for the first time.
Manager Terry Francona had a quick answer when asked if he'd ever seen anything like it.
"Yes," he said. "I had Michael Jordan. And this guy can't dunk, so I've seen it." (Francona managed Jordan in the Arizona Fall League in 1994.)
There was a rumor that some of the Japanese were providing live coverage of live BP. Double live.
"Not true," said Sam Onoda of Japan broadcast outlet NHK. "We're not that crazy."
Dice-K was impressive. He threw 40 pitches, then two pitchouts and two final pitches for good measure. A quartet of Sox minor leaguers (Bobby Scales, Kevin Cash, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Luis Jimenez) flailed away at home plate, managing two solid hits. Cash pulled a double to left-center and Ellsbury hit a solid opposite-field single to left. Jason Varitek caught the Japanese ace.
Boston's captain made light of the bustling scene when he first went to squat behind home plate. Motioning toward CEO Larry Lucchino, scout Craig Shipley, assistant GM Jed Hoyer, pitching coach John Farrell, and a raft of other Sox personnel (including Matt Clement), the catcher said, "Could we clear the area, please? We kind of have some work to do."
Scales stood in first, batting from the left side, and took the first pitch. Matsuzaka initially worked from the stretch before shifting to his windup delivery. Minor league pitching coordinator Ralph Treuel stood behind Dice-K on the infield grass.
"I'd never seen him pitch before," said Scales. "He definitely dialed it up the second time I was in there. The guy's got good stuff. It's not a myth. Not a tall tale."
"I saw him break out every pitch," said Francona. "Fastball, changeup, breaking ball. He had command of the ball. He's got that changeup he turns over and that'll really be effective."
Matsuzaka has a Tiantesque pause at the top of his windup, though no twist at the finish where you see the number on his back from the batter's box. The wait is going to annoy American League hitters. Some may try to call time when he's in mid-delivery.
"It's different from guys who grow up in the States," said Scales. "Our pitchers are not taught that way."
"That's a little bit different than most pitchers," said Ellsbury, a top Sox prospect. "It's not that long of a pause, though. He's still smooth."
"His fastball explodes at the end," said Jimenez.
Matsuzaka was pleased with the workout.
"For me to see how far I have achieved in preparation for the games is to see how the batter reacts to my pitches," he said through translator Sachiyo Sekiguchi. "Today was an important day for me."
He is scheduled to throw 50 pitches of live batting practice tomorrow, take three days off, then face the Boston College Eagles Friday night at City of Palms Park.
His first spring game against big league hitters is scheduled for Tuesday, March 6, against the Marlins in Jupiter, Fla. He no doubt will have Varitek catching all of his games.
"I stated before, in order to build a really good relationship built on trust is to communicate more and also by having more pitches caught by [Varitek]," said Matsuzaka.
The day produced only one disappointment.
"I didn't see a gyroball," said Ellsbury.
"No gyro," seconded Scales. "But I don't really know what a gyroball does."
No one does. It's just another part of the myth and mystique of Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.