Dan Shaughnessy

Far away, a title defense begins

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Staff / March 24, 2008

TOKYO -- They are the defending AL East Champs, American League Champs, and World Series Champs.

Tuesday morning, they can be Champions of Breakfast.

It will be 6:07 a.m. back home in Boston when Dustin Pedroia steps into the batter's box to face Oakland righty Joe Blanton at the Tokyo Dome.

It's a odd way to start a title defense. When the 2005 Sox resumed work after the wondrous winter bacchanal of 2004, it was Johnny Damon digging in against Randy Johnson in Yankee Stadium on Sunday night prime time with all the trappings of the Sox-Yankees' 100-year-war. It felt like the World Series.

This feels ... foreign. The Sox are on the other side of the world, celebrities in a strange land, bringing Major League Baseball to a country where the sport is revered. While even the most devout seamhead must admit that football is America's most popular sport, baseball is truly still the national pastime of Japan. And so a Boston-based baseball Nation rises to watch the Red Sox in the land of the rising sun.

"I think a lot of our fans will get up early to watch," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "This is special. We just have to embrace it and come up with a win. Whatever skepticism there was has gone away, just seeing the way they think of baseball here. It's been very worthwhile."

In a fateful twist -- he is, after all, the reason the Red Sox are here in the first place -- Daisuke Matsuzaka will pitch the first game for the Red Sox. Josh Beckett's back spasms and the early arrival of Dice K's second son conspired to put Matsuzaka on the mound in the land where he is a legend on a par with Michael Jordan.

Matsuzaka first earned fame here by dominating the national high school tournament (think NCAA Final Four), then brought more honor to his country by winning the MVP of the inaugural World Baseball Classic. It cost the Red Sox more than $100 million to secure his services after his 2006 Seibu season, and tonight he returns to his motherland wearing a World Series ring after only one season in Boston.

"It has been a while since I've heard the Japanese fans cheering," said Matsuzaka. "I want to stay in the game as long as I can. I'm honored to be the Opening Day starter, and because Japanese fans are also looking forward to it, I want to do the best I can."

The long-range task for Matsuzaka and his teammates is simple: Win another World Series. Finding themselves in the unusual position of top gun, the Sox are odds-on favorites to win again. After years of finishing behind the Yankees, the Franconamen broke through in the AL East last season and now the New Yorkers are chasing the Bostonians.

"I don't think people are gunning for us," said Kevin Youkilis. "This isn't like football. This is 162 games and it's a long season so I don't see it that way. It will play itself out. We just need to focus on every play and it all plays itself out."

Youkilis sounds like he's reciting something from a high school gym wall, but this has been the formula for success under Terry Francona. More than the proverbial one game at a time, the Sox approach their work one pitch at a time, and the mantra has yielded two championships in four seasons. Throughout baseball, Boston is the model franchise.

Tokyo is the first stop on an 18-day, three-country, 16,000-mile road trip and thus far there have been no Mike Mussina-esque complaints from the men wearing Boston uniforms. After a homerless Grapefruit campaign, David Ortiz went over the wall in his first Japan at-bat, and Manny Ramirez granted an in-depth interview, pledging to hit 600 homers before he's through (Ramirez starts the season 10 homers shy of the magical 500 mark). J.D. Drew homered in each of two exhibitions here and closer Jonathan Papelbon was clocked at 151 (kilometers per hour).

With the exception of Curt Schilling, this is the same team that beat the Rockies four straight in October. They know they're expected to win.

"This whole team embraces that," said Papelbon. "We have to go out there and defend the title and try to keep the championship in the city of Boston. It's going to be tough, but there's no reason we can't do that. If we stay healthy and play consistently we can do it."

This is the third time Major League Baseball has opened the season in Japan, the first time the Red Sox have played a regular-season game anywhere outside North America. Lucky Oakland fans will need to rise at 3. a.m. in order to listen to the A's on the radio.

"I think it's going to be a little different at first, but once everybody takes the field and plays a few innings it will be like any other big league game," said Papelbon.

"I think we're over the whole thing of being here," added Youkilis. "Whether we're playing in Oakland or Fenway Park or Japan, we'll play it like a real game."

Sox owners John Henry and Tom Werner visited temples and shrines in Kyoto over the weekend.

"I prayed for the 2007 World Champions to repeat," said Werner.

And so the quest to repeat begins ... on the wings of a Boeing 747 and prayers from Kyoto shrines.

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