Pitcher the picture of calm
Outing doesn't faze Matsuzaka
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Daisuke Matsuzaka had been so impressive, so early, Drew Barrymore was being lined up for the sequel to "Fever Pitch."
It was getting to the point where it was tough to separate the hype from the satire, like this recent offering from the Onion: "His Ultimate Galactic Dragon Gyroball Pitch Power Explosion breaks three feet inside before cutting sharply toward the dugout, where falsehood and cowardice are forced to shrink before it!"
Things just might calm down a little after yesterday afternoon, although one shouldn't rule out the possibility that it will get the black-border treatment in newspapers back in Japan. Matsuzaka gave up two home runs to the Baltimore Orioles yesterday, both struck by nonroster camp invitees: Jon Knott, a former college teammate of Jonathan Papelbon who had come into the game hitless in his first 12 spring at-bats, and Jason Dubois, a nice Triple A hitter previously cut by the Cubs and Indians.
Matsuzaka also threw a potential double-play ball into center field for an error in a 5-3 Sox loss to the Orioles witnessed by the full Sox ownership troika, the coach and player personnel chief of the three-time Super Bowl champion Patriots, six big league scouts, a crew from the NBC Nightly News, Stephen King, Peter Gammons, 100 folks from the Boston Latin School, an announced crowd of 7,957 in City of Palms Park, and however many insomniacs turned on TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) to watch the game at 2 a.m. Japan time.
"This is kind of cool," said Knott, whose home run ball had been retrieved by Orioles PR man Bill Stetka in case an MLB authenticator wanted to register it for posterity.
Knott's choice of clubhouse reading material ("Facing Your Giants") was only incidental to his two at-bats against Matsuzaka, both of which ended up splendidly for No. 68 in your program: a home run over the right-center-field fence to start the third, and a base hit that followed Dubois's two-run homer in the fourth.
"Going international? That's scary," said Dubois, when informed that his swing soon would be discussed from Akita to Yokohama.
The one person who took it all in stride, of course, was Matsuzaka, who evidently suspected he might give up a run or two sometime between March and October. Yesterday, he gave up four (three earned) in his four innings of work, in which he was touched for six hits in all, including a single by former Sox outfielder Adam Stern, who also swiped second and eventually came around to score.
Because it was the Orioles, an AL East rival, "I thought I'd take the opportunity to experiment a little bit," Matsuzaka said calmly through translator Masa Hoshino. "See where they're going to hit the ball, see where they wouldn't hit it. The third and fourth inning, I was definitely experimenting."
But before anyone in the Sox accounting department reaches for the smelling salts, Matsuzaka did more than lob a couple of meatballs to a pair of obscure minor leaguers.
He breezed through a 1-2-3 first inning, ringing up Melvin Mora with a 92-mile-an-hour fastball that chipped the black on the outside corner for a called third strike, and paralyzing Jay Gibbons with back-to-back changeups that left Gibbons swinging at dust particles.
The breaking balls and offspeed pitches came in all counts and in every situation, and most were in the strike zone. Those high pitches he threw in his last two innings? Matsuzaka said he was trying to get a feel for the upper limits of the strike zone. He learned, he said, that hitters will swing at those pitches, and throwing "high fastballs and high sliders can be a little dangerous."
But humbled by the home runs?
"The fact that they hit a couple of home runs off me is not something I'm terribly worked up about," he said. "There will be times I get hit and they score runs against me. Speaking psychologically, I'm not overly concerned about that."
Fact is, Matsuzaka played to favorable reviews from the Orioles, and the scouts in attendance.
"He's got good stuff," Dubois said. "He's not scared of any hitters. He goes right after them. He made a few mistakes and we took advantage. The fastball I hit was almost the same pitch Knott hit, belt high. A good pitch to get elevated.
"All we hear is what we see on TV and in the papers. Everybody was curious to see what he had, and a lot of hitters were fooled today."
Buck Martinez, the former big league catcher and manager now broadcasting for the Orioles, saw Matsuzaka up close and personal last spring, as manager of Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
"He threw all his pitches for strikes," Martinez said. "He's not 97, like we'd heard, he's 92, 93. I think he's going to pitch at 92, 93, maybe occasionally 95. The movement of his changeup reminds me of John Hiller and Willie Hernandez.
"This is a tough league to pitch in. The perfect example is Josh Beckett. He came over last year and got hit. You have to give this kid time to make some adjustments.
"He reminds me of [Juan] Marichal. He has good control to both sides of the plate. Today's breaking ball isn't a good indicator of what it will be. He's still not strong enough to get the real tight spin. For the breaking ball to be effective to lefthanded hitters, it's got to look like a strike. Today, his breaking balls looked like balls."
Brian Roberts, the Orioles' leadoff hitter, said he saw fastball, slider, changeup, and "gyroball." The latter, he said with a smile.
"Me being a midget leadoff man, I saw a lot of fastballs," he said.
Bruce Kison, the former major league pitcher who was in the Orioles' bullpen as a coach, scoffed at the notion of a gyroball. "If you turn your hand over like this," he said, demonstrating, "it's a screwball."
Martinez also acknowledged the screwball action of Matsuzaka's changeup, which fades away from lefthanded hitters, though he suspects the pitch that makes hitters believe the gyro exists is a backdoor slider.
"If you get underneath it," he said, "it spins that way and dives that way. It looks funny."
What's funny, Stern suggested, is for anyone to rush to judgment before the Ides of March.
"It's spring training," he said. "How many times have you seen guys come out here and be Babe Ruths and fade away? He's just trying to get comfortable. But already you can see he is effective in keeping people off-balance, and obviously that's huge."