KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Dice-K was Ice K. He was also 10 K. And Special K.
Maybe even a Japanese Pedro. Or a Pocket Rocket.
Given the hype and hysteria that have accompanied his every move and word since the Red Sox spent $103.1 million to acquire him, we figured it would be almost impossible for rookie righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka to live up to expectations in his first regular-season appearance before major league hitters.
But he did. On a day better suited for the Winter Olympics (36 degrees), Dice-K struck out 10 Kansas City Royals and allowed only one run on six hits over seven innings of a 4-1 victory at Kauffman Stadium yesterday. The game was witnessed by 23,170 real-life spectators (including Mrs. Dice-K, who was seated behind home plate), plus NESN-watching citizens of Red Sox Nation, and millions of proud Japanese fans, who got up at 3 a.m. to watch on television.
"It's great that I was able to record a victory in my first start," the moonfaced pitcher said through his translator. "Up until now, given all the expectations -- they were a little bit extreme -- but I'm happy."
He's not the only one happy. Red Sox owner John W. Henry, the man who approved the whopping $51.1 million posting fee to acquire Matsuzaka from the Seibu Lions, was also happy. Same for general manager Theo Epstein, who negotiated Dice-K's $52 million, six-year pact.
"It was nice to see him get off to a good start," said Epstein, who watched from the stands. "It was an organization-wide effort to get this guy. We put a lot on the line, but this is really just the beginning. It's always great to watch a pitcher who has a lot of different weapons."
Dice-K emptied his toolbox in the chilly climate. He threw fastballs, sliders, changeups, curves, splitters, cut fastballs, and two-seam fastballs in 108 pitches. Maybe even a gyro or two. It was mildly reminiscent of Pedro Martínez's first game with the Red Sox in 1998, when the Dominican Diva fanned 11 Oakland A's in a 2-0 victory.
Cynics can cite the brutal hitting conditions and the caliber of the traditionally last-place Royals lineup, but in his first game Matsuzaka delivered on all the expectations that accompanied his celebrated journey to America's major leagues.
"Expectations, from what I've heard so far, are unreachable," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "But he's got this thing figured out better than anybody else. He loves to pitch, he enjoys the game, and he's pretty good."
It was obvious early in the day that this was not just another midweek game in early April. Two-and-a-half hours before the first pitch, there were approximately 150 people, many with cameras, hanging out and shivering in front of the Red Sox dugout. On the other side of the field, there was nothing in front of the Royals dugout other than a John Deere tractor. The mass media clearly was not here to see Ross Gload and Emil Brown.
Staked to a 1-0 lead in the first inning thanks to a Manny Ramírez RBI double, Dice-K bounded from the dugout just after 2:20 p.m. EDT and made his warm-up tosses to Jason Varitek. The first batter he faced was David DeJesus and he cracked a clean single to left-center on a 1-and-1 pitch. The Royals didn't get another hit until the fifth and didn't cross home plate until DeJesus homered to right field in the sixth.
The biggest play of the game came after DeJesus's homer, when Mark Teahen took a called third strike while Esteban German, who singled, was trying to steal second. Varitek nailed German (the Sox might have gotten a break on the call), squashing the rally in a 2-1 game.
"That was a backdoor slider," said Varitek. "[German] slid a little bit short and we got the call. That ended up being a big play for us."
Dice-K got stronger after the play. Starting with Teahen, he fanned four of five batters, two looking. He regularly cracked mid-90s on the radar gun. But it was the offspeed stuff and the control that made his fastball effective. Matsuzaka went to three-ball counts on only two hitters (one walk) and went to 0-and-2 counts on eight hitters.
"He's got a wide variety of pitches," stated Varitek. "I can't say one is better than another. He's not locked into any one pitch on any one count. And throwing Strike 1 is a very big part of what makes him successful."
Matsuzaka was at 96 pitches after six innings. Pitching coach John Farrell asked if he could go one more frame. No problem. Matsuzaka got the side in order in the seventh, striking out two, both swinging.
"I consider myself the type of pitcher who gets stronger in games, the more I pitch," said Matsuzaka, who sometimes plays catch after he's done pitching.
"This is a day I've been waiting for for a really long time, but given that fact, I felt very normal."
Granted, it was only the Royals. And certainly it was not a day for hitting. But everything about Matsuzaka indicates he's going to be the same guy with the same set of weapons when he toes the rubber in Yankee Stadium, preparing to face Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and countryman Hideki Matsui.
One game into Matsuzaka's Red Sox career, it's all good. So go out and buy that No. 18 jersey and have a bowl of Dice Kream and top it off with a Dice-K Tini at the Ritz-Carlton.
Dan Shaughnessy's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.