SEATTLE - He was 8-0 to begin last night's game at Safeco Field, though the buzz surrounding Daisuke Matsuzaka seemed to have died down - in Japan and the United States - after his much-heralded rookie campaign last year.
But the buzz began again, and not in the way Matsuzaka wanted. Trailing the Mariners, 3-0, he left the mound at the start of the fifth inning after throwing two warm-up pitches. Matsuzaka was holding his back and side and walked off the mound as the Red Sox medical staff scurried to him. The club reported after the game that he had experienced shoulder fatigue.
"I had a similar experience probably in my second or third year of my professional career where before the game I just felt that things weren't 100 percent," Matsuzaka said through an interpreter. "I had a similar feeling, so I had a conversation with the coaching staff at the time. I think at that time I ended up starting the game.
"But today with so much season left, and such a long way to go in this long season, I thought it would be best to come out of the game at that point."
Matsuzaka would remain undefeated, thanks to Manny Ramírez's three-run homer that tied the game in the sixth, but for now the questions are: How bad is the injury and how long will he be out?
Clay Buchholz is rehabbing in the minors and could very well be summoned back to Boston to take Matsuzaka's spot in the rotation.
The 27-year-old righthander allowed three runs, two earned, in the Sox' 4-3 loss to the Mariners. Many around baseball have been commenting lately on how unsightly his 8-0, 2.40 start was. None of it has helped maintain the frenzied interest that accompanied Matsuzaka's every move last year.
"I think people in Japan like brand new," said veteran Japanese baseball reporter Hideaki Takahashi of the Mainichi Newspapers. "I think there are a lot of new players in the league this year. I think [Kosuke] Fukudome has drawn a lot of interest from the Japanese media and I think people are getting a little bit tired of watching Daisuke."
That didn't take long. Despite his unblemished won-lost record, Matsuzaka hasn't seemed that dominant. Maybe it's the walks, or the tedious, laborious games he still pitches (though he walked none in his abbreviated outing last night).
His starts are no longer the events they were after the Sox bid $51.1 million just to negotiate with him.
Was he worth the money? In this day and age, when starting pitchers are at a premium, certainly. He won 15 games last year while getting used to a new culture, a new climate of baseball. The outlay is certainly money well spent when you consider that he is Boston's No. 2 starter.
The issue of whether Matsuzaka is considered an ace is debated in Japan and even New England, but the answer to that question is a question: "If you had one game to win, whom would you want on the mound?" The obvious answer would be Josh Beckett, even at a time when Beckett hasn't been his usual self.
Those around Matsuzaka - be it Terry Francona or John Farrell or Jason Varitek - all point out that this is a much more relaxed and confident pitcher than he was last year. Yet he still lapses into those control problems from time to time.
Of his first 10 starts this season, only five were quality starts, but the Sox were putting up 6.1 runs per game for him and they were 10-0 in his games.
"One of the reasons his popularity is down a bit," said Takahashi, "is because while he has the most wins and a good ERA and is better than last year, he hasn't had a lot of good performances."
In his postgame press conferences, Matsuzaka has been critical of himself. He often says he's not satisfied with his execution of pitches. While he seems to have better fastball command, sometimes his offspeed pitches have too much movement and hitters tend to lay off them.
He threw more than 100 pitches seven times in his first 10 starts. He went seven innings or more only twice. The Red Sox would love to see a more efficient machine on the mound, but they'll take 8-0 any day.
Barring a disaster or the shoulder being a significant problem, Matsuzaka will be an All-Star, suiting up for Francona's AL team in Yankee Stadium, which should be a spectacle in Japan.
While the volume of Japanese reporters around Matsuzaka has lessened, coverage was amped up last night with the Ichiro-Matsuzaka matchup. It used to be that Matsuzaka would have to do postgame press conferences in an interview room on the road to accommodate the media; now they are done in the hallway.
In comparison, Ichiro's popularity remains incredibly high. As Takahashi points out, "The American media doesn't appreciate Daisuke as much as Ichiro. The Japanese media also appreciates Ichiro's performance." Of course, if Matsuzaka isn't hurt badly and continues to enjoy an undefeated season, all bets are off. The Japanese media will be back in full force.
Going into last night, Matsuzaka was 23-12 with a 3.94 ERA for his big league career. That's pretty impressive for 42 starts.
One scout reasoned that perhaps there's a bit of disappointment in the way Matsuzaka performs because he was overhyped to begin with. He was said to have six or seven pitches, plus the "gyroball." He was made out to be something he clearly was not.
He was 108-60 with a 2.95 ERA for the Seibu Lions, but that's a far cry from the AL East. He clearly has made all sorts of adjustments with his delivery; he's gotten used to the feel of the American ball, how umpires call his pitches, how hitters respond to his offspeed stuff. And at the end of the day, there's usually a "W" next to his name.
As for his appeal from a marketing point of view, Sam Kennedy, chief sales and marketing officer for the Sox, says business on Matsuzaka is about the same as it was last season - "kind of low-key. We generated some prospects and leads when we went to Japan, but we have to be patient and take a long-term view."
For the time being, Matsuzaka won't be working on style points. All the Sox will care about is him getting healthy and resuming that undefeated streak.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com