TOKYO - In a normal season, roster decisions are customarily resolved by Opening Day, teams paring down to 25 players by their first game.
But when, like the Red Sox, you play your first game earlier than any other team in big-league history, you are allowed to keep extra players around because you're in Japan, and one of your accidental tourists, rookie Brandon Moss, proves to be a difference-maker in a 6-5, 10-inning win over the Oakland Athletics, there may be some last-minute politicking for change.
"He's going to raise some eyebrows," catcher Jason Varitek said of Moss, who came here essentially as flight insurance but took wing after J.D. Drew hurt his back in pregame warm-ups and he was inserted in the starting lineup.
With the Sox just two outs from defeat yesterday, Moss, who'd already singled home a run in the sixth, hit his first major league home run off Athletics closer Huston Street in the ninth, then stepped aside to let Manny Ramírez do the rest, Ramírez doubling home two runs in the 10th off Street to break the 4-4 tie fashioned by Moss.
Ramírez also had doubled home two runs in the sixth, when the Sox spared jittery Daisuke Matsuzaka the indignity of losing on his home turf, Matsuzaka departing with a 2-0 deficit after walking five batters in five innings. Ramírez, who finished with four RBIs, made a winner out of another native son, Hideki Okajima, who pitched a scoreless ninth in the Tokyo Dome, where, as a former member of The Egg's principal tenants, the Yomiuri Giants, he saw as many camera flashbulbs popping as Matsuzaka did.
Ramírez, who had bolted three days into his first Asian adventure four years ago, when he was a member of a troupe of touring major leaguers, said he's much happier this go-round, although his diet may require some adjustment.
"Lots of sushi," he said when asked what he's been eating. "I can't see more sushi anymore. I've been eating it every day."
Ramírez, whose winning hit came after an intentional walk to David Ortiz, was given a check by the game's commercial sponsors for 1 million yen, which translates roughly into $10,000.
"I think I'll use it for gas money," he said. "I'm just ready to roll. I feel good. It's going to be a great ride."
Ramírez, who has never seemed more content in a Sox uniform than he has this spring, also suggested that the Sox might want to take another look at Moss.
Moss is making it tough for the Sox to reflexively punch his ticket back to Pawtucket, first with his strong spring (.308), and now with his Opening Day performance, as he became just the third player in Sox history, and first since 1945, to hit his first big-league home run in an opener.
"Unbelievable, an unbelievable job," said Ramírez, who in his first game of 2008 matched what he did just twice last season - drive in as many as four runs in a game. "We saw him in spring training. He's a great player. We hope he stays here."
Moss's home run allowed a crowd of 44,628 to erupt at the entrance of Okajima, the self-styled second banana to Matsuzaka in the grand scheme of things but a hometown favorite here.
The cheers grew louder when Okajima struck out Kurt Suzuki to open the ninth, but there were some anxious moments after he issued a four-pitch walk to pinch hitter Mike Sweeney. Travis Buck just missed realizing Okajima's worst fears, his fly ball to deep center expiring in Jacoby Ellsbury's glove, before Mark Ellis tapped out to the mound to send the game into extra innings.
"I heard the crowd noise," Okajima said, an admission many players are loath to make. "It was a great motivation to pitch well.
"Yes, I did notice the flash of the cameras going. I was nervous, but I felt that I needed to answer the crowd by pitching well. I appreciate the fans' support. It drives me to do better."
Matsuzaka's antenna was up, no doubt, as well, given his unmatched status here as a national sports icon. (The cult of Daisuke runs so strong, there are probably some fans here who believe that this country's gorgeous cherry blossoms bloom when Matsuzaka deems it time). The early returns suggest he may have been overwhelmed in the opener.
He gave up a home run to the second Oakland batter, Ellis, then went walk, hit batter, wild pitch, walk before Bobby Crosby's infield chopper made it 2-0 in the first. There would be a single and two more walks in the second, when Matsuzaka benefited from a borderline third-strike call on a down-and-in slider to Jack Cust, who whiffed four times for a team that had just three players back from its Opening Day lineup of a year ago.
Matsuzaka issued a two-out walk to Jack Hannahan in the third, then set down his final seven batters before manager Terry Francona pulled him after a yield of 95 pitches.
"It could have been the excitement - I would imagine anybody would be [affected]," said catcher Jason Varitek of Matsuzaka, who in a published message in English to his fans in Japan practically guaranteed a repeat as World Series champion, while leaving a cryptic "Cy Young Award" above his signature as well.
High anxiety was not the sole province of Matsuzaka. Reliever Kyle Snyder gave away the 3-2 lead forged for Matsuzaka when he went single, home run to the first two batters he faced in the sixth, Crosby and Hannahan. And closer Jonathan Papelbon weathered a perilous 10th, one in which an egregious base-running blunder by Emil Brown helped short-circuit an Athletics rally.
Brown doubled home Daric Barton, who had walked, but Kevin Youkilis cut off a strong relay from Dustin Pedroia and erased Brown, who had no shot at third, in a rundown.
"I saw him take off," Youkilis said. "We were all screaming, 'Four!' [i.e. throw to home], and Pedey came up throwing as hard as he could. We probably could have gotten the man out at home, too, but I just decided to take the out."
Two singles and a visit from pitching coach John Farrell followed, before Papelbon ended the game by inducing Suzuki to roll out to Youkilis.
"The atmosphere was fantastic to play baseball," said Francona, who had his usual game-day routine disrupted by a required appearance at a reception at the US Embassy, then had to stay out of the way while the awaodori dancers and hip-hoppers went through their paces during elaborate pregame ceremonies.
"When the field was taken over, the hardest thing for a manager is when you're opening the season anywhere there's all the pageantry and everything, and there's so much anxiety," Francona said. "We feel so much more anxiety in a game like today - because it's our first game and we're out of our routine - than we do in the playoffs.
"It's amazing, until you can get into the grind of a season, how much anxiety there is."
Maybe that's true for the guys who have been through it, but for Moss, who found out he was playing just before the starting lineup was introduced?
"I didn't have much time to feel anything," he said.
Final roster cuts are Sunday. Stay tuned.
Gordon Edes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.