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This 'Monster' translates well

Matsuzaka easily handles pressure

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Daisuke Matsuzaka's nickname in Japan is "Kaibutsu" (pronounced "Kah-ee-boo-tsoo"), which translates into English as "The Monster." At 6 feet, 187 pounds, the baby-faced Matsuzaka hardly resembles a monster.

gaku.jpgBut in Japan, when an athlete is called Kaibutsu, it has a connotation of special respect and admiration. Such a name is given only to those who are considered superhuman, and whose talents surpass the normal limits of what a player can do.

The origins of how Matsuzaka became Kaibutsu lie in the Koshien (pronounced "koh-she-en") tournament. The Koshien is the Japanese high school baseball national tournament, held in the spring and summer. The craze surrounding this tournament is similar to the March Madness of the NCAA basketball tournament.

In 1998, Matsuzaka led Yokohama High School as it became only the fifth school to win the spring and summer tournaments in the same year. He pitched 17 innings in the quarterfinals, and a no-hitter in the final.

The summer tournament was held under a typical blazing sun and Matsuzaka took the mound six times, pitching 54 innings during an 11-day period. He threw 782 pitches and had 54 strikeouts. This was unimaginable for someone who had yet to reach his 18th birthday.

Even in a place that doesn't adhere to the kind of pitch counts seen in the major leagues Matsuzaka's effort was extraordinary. Kaibutsu was born.

A glimpse of Kaibutsu came during spring training as well. Let's take his bullpen sessions as an example.

In the majors, a pitcher takes about 10 minutes to throw 40-50 pitches. Matsuzaka, meanwhile, threw 103 pitches in his second bullpen session of the spring. After one game, he threw an extra bullpen session, and in a session of long toss with Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, he threw the ball 121 times and the men were standing at least 300 feet apart. A normal distance for long toss is 160-220 feet.

The Sox, who have $103 million invested in Matsuzaka, have persuaded the righthander to modify his throwing program to protect his arm. They want him pitching for the full six years of his contract.

But this is the routine of Kaibutsu.

Japanese pitchers believe that throwing a lot during spring training helps solidify their mechanics and build arm strength. Matsuzaka exemplifies this. One day last year, he threw a staggering 333 pitches in one 90-minute bullpen session.

This is a routine that would be considered crazy by most baseball instructors in the United States.

Last season, Matsuzaka threw 13 complete games for the Seibu Lions. The most complete games in the majors last season was six, by Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia. The Red Sox staff had two complete games, by Tim Wakefield and Julian Tavarez. It was not unusual for Matsuzaka to throw 150 pitches or more in a game.

In Japan, Matsuzaka pitched once every six days, giving him an extra day's rest between starts compared with the five-man rotation employed in the majors. Because of that, his pitch counts almost certainly will go down, although I believe he'll still be intent on throwing complete games. I wouldn't be surprised to see scenes on the mound in which Matsuzaka tries to persuade manager Terry Francona to leave him in the game.

And, who knows? If he does well this season, the Red Sox might consider altering their throwing program to have their other pitchers throw more, like Matsuzaka.

Matsuzaka has a history of shining on the big stage. It started with the Koshien, but he has risen to the occasion in other big events, such as the Olympics and last year's World Baseball Classic, in which he was named MVP.

That bodes well for the Red Sox if they are still playing in October.

Matsuzaka, as you say in the United States, walks the walk. While he was still in elementary school, he told his friends, "I want to be a billion-yen player in the future."

That dream came true this past offseason.

In an exclusive interview this week with Sankei Sports, he talked about his hopes of winning a World Series with the Sox, but he also did not shy away from goals out of reach for most rookies.

"The Cy Young Award?" he said. " I would like to win what I can. That is the ultimate honor for a pitcher. I think anybody who is a pitcher would desire to win such an award.

"I don't mind more and more expectations, and I don't mind being placed under pressure. I would like to meet those expectations."

So, America, here comes Kaibutsu. If he pitches the way he did in Japan, you're in for something special.

Gaku Tashiro is the senior baseball reporter of Sankei Sports, an all-sports daily newspaper based in Tokyo. He is the first Japanese member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

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