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Slice and Dice

Matsuzaka gets zero help in his Fenway Park debut

It would be foolish, of course, to suggest that Dice-K mania crested last night, just because he lost his first Fenway Park start.

But just to be sure, someone might want to swing by Yawkey Way this morning to check whether the Dunkin' Donuts billboard in right field hasn't subbed out its Japanese lettering with Spanish.

An April game that was in so much demand four television networks -- NESN, ESPN, FSN Northwest (Seattle), and NHK (Tokyo) -- chose to air it lived up to its hype, but it wasn't the spectacle anticipated by a global audience.

Seattle righthander Felix Hernandez, a Venezuelan prodigy three days past his 21st birthday, upstaged Dice-K, Ichiro, Johjima, Mitsubishi, sushi, and anything else Japanese at Fenway Park with a one-hit, 3-0 mastery of Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Red Sox. The hachimaki -- Japanese headbands -- distributed by an enterprising seafood restaurant outside of the park might as well have doubled as blindfolds for a Sox lineup that was held without a hit until J.D. Drew grounded a single just past Hernandez's glove and into center field to open the eighth.

"If he wasn't on, I wouldn't want to see him when he's on," said Sox rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who walked in the third but like everyone else in a Boston uniform failed to advance past first base on a night when Hernandez faced just 29 batters, two more than the minimum. " He threw me a pitch my last at-bat, I'm not kidding you, it moved about 6 feet and it was a 95-mile-an-hour sinker. I mean, what can you do? He had some electric stuff, especially in these conditions."

There has been just one no-hitter thrown against the Red Sox in Fenway Park in the last 81 years. That was Detroit's Jim Bunning, before he became a senator, who retired Ted Williams on a fly ball to right field for the last out of his no-hitter July 20, 1958, in the first game of a doubleheader.

Hernandez, who was in the viewfinder of roughly 36,630 fewer cameras than Matsuzaka was when he faced Ichiro Suzuki to start the game, was six outs away from joining Bunning until Drew hit safely. He had to settle for becoming the first Sox opponent to throw a one-hitter here since Carl Everett broke up Mike Mussina's perfect-game bid for the Yankees with two outs in the ninth inning Sept. 2, 2001.

"Any time you break up a no-hitter late in the game, it always feels good," said Drew, the new Sox right fielder who has now hit safely in his first eight games but had no company on a night when Hernandez walked two and whiffed six. "More than anything, you're trying to get on base, trying to get something started.

"You're still in the ballgame late in the game and if you get on base it's crucial right there."

Hernandez set down the last six Sox batters in order to match Mussina's feat, striking out Kevin Youkilis on a wicked breaking ball to send a stunned gathering of 36,630 home after a mere 2 hours 22 minutes.

"It was a night there was no room for error," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "[Hernandez] threw some balls that looked like they were disappearing."

Matsuzaka, in the much-ballyhooed duel between the Monster and Heavenly Talent (Suzuki), won his personal mano-a-mano between Japanese icons, retiring the Mariners' leadoff man all four times he faced him -- comebacker to the mound in the first, fly ball to center in the third, strikeout in the fifth, and force play in the seventh. For the record, Matsuzaka's first pitch to Ichiro was a curveball, a choice of pitches challenged by Japanese reporters who suggested that a fastball would have been a more honorable selection ("From the way he reacted, I think Ichiro might have been a little upset," Matsuzaka said with a laugh).

"I didn't want Ichiro to hit me the ball because you couldn't even see the ball there were so many flashbulbs going off," third baseman Mike Lowell said. "I was thinking, I hope he hits me a ground ball because if he hits a line drive right at me, I'm seeing stars. But it was pretty cool. We had two of the best players in Japan facing off against each other. That's not something you see every day."

But Matsuzaka was no match on this night for Hernandez, who as early as March 2005 was pegged as the best pitching prospect in the game by Baseball America. Francona, while addressing the hype surrounding Matsuzaka, had been warning for two days that the Sox would have their hands full with Hernandez, who April 2 in Seattle had struck out 12 against Oakland, the first Opening Day starter to fan at least a dozen without allowing a run since Hall of Famer Bob Gibson did it for the Cardinals in 1967.

"From the time he was in A ball, people were saying he would go straight to the big leagues," said Sox reliever Joel Pineiro, a former Mariner who is friends with Hernandez. "I think I remember the first time he pitched in a big league game in spring training. I think he struck out the side, and I remember thinking, 'Wow.' "

Matsuzaka did not score as highly on the "Wow" meter. He was touched for a run in the second, when Jose Guillen lined a single on a 3-and-0 pitch, took third on a double by Kenji Johjima, the Mariners' catcher who hit Matsuzaka with some success (32 for 118) in Japan, and scored on Yuniesky Betancourt's sacrifice fly to left, just beating a strong throw from Manny Ramírez.

Matsuzaka retired nine of the next 10 batters -- Guillen was the only one to reach, when he was struck by a Matsuzaka fastball on his left elbow -- until Lopez singled with one out in the fifth. Matsuzaka fanned Ichiro on a splitter in the dirt for the second out, but Adrian Beltre rifled a double into the left-center-field gap to score Lopez, moved up to third when the relay from Pedroia skipped away, and scored on Jose Vidro's single.

"I think he threw well," Lowell said. "There were just a couple of pitches on which guys were aggressive early and jumped on him. One run seemed to be enough tonight, but I think we're hyping him so much that when he gives up three runs, its an 'Oh, my God.' "

Matsuzaka left after seven innings and 103 pitches, having been touched for eight hits and a walk. He struck out four. "His location and his feel of some pitches today weren't bad, by no means," catcher Jason Varitek said. "But you could tell on some of his breaking balls and stuff that they backed up and he wasn't able to finish some of them."

On Ichiro's last at-bat, in the seventh, he had to duck out of the way of an up-and-in Matsuzaka fastball.

"I wanted to throw it inside," said Matsuzaka, who complained he didn't have a good fastball. "I didn't mean to throw it that high. It was an accident that it went as high as it went."

There were no accidents for Hernandez, who went special delivery on a night that Matsuzaka was regular mail. His best pitch of the night may have been the 97-mile-per-hour fastball on the black that Ramírez looked at for a called third strike to end the seventh.

"It was amazing," Matsuzaka said, "how he made my teammates struggle against him."