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ON BASEBALL

Inconsistent Matsuzaka displays his wild side

The Red Sox signed Hideki Okajima as an 11th or 12th pitcher/friend of Daisuke Matsuzaka. What they've got is a guy who currently is the premiere lefthanded set up man in baseball, while the Japanese rock star Dice-K is struggling.

Talk about a strange juxtaposition .

Even Dice-K last night said after lasting five innings and allowing seven runs, "I definitely know I need to change something."

Already the jokes are out there.

Maybe the $51.1 million posting fee the Sox paid for Matsuzaka is worth it if he makes Okajima comfortable in his surroundings. Doug Mientkiewicz is probably right: Okajima is Boston's MVP, while Matsuzaka has not fulfilled expectations.

Right now Matsuzaka owns a 3-2 record and a 5.45 ERA.

He's being overshadowed by Okajima.

This is not to say Matsuzaka will be a bust. Nobody with his stuff and his ability to dominate batters at times will ever be a bust. This is a 26-year-old pitcher going through the major leagues for the first time. Argue all you want about the rules for rookie of the year voting and whether Matsuzaka should qualify based on his extensive experience.

The fact is, while Matsuzaka has been dominant in Japan for several years, he's learning new strike zones, new baseballs, new umpires, and most of all -- great hitters night in and night out.

This can't be easy. It can't be a picnic to have faced the Yankees twice.

It isn't because this kid isn't trying or spending too much time out on the town. He works extremely hard. He's so intent on making a good impression that some members of the Japanese media think he's trying too hard. He's losing focus at times. In every one of his starts he's had one bad inning.

Last night it was the first. Five runs. You can blame some of it on the fielding, as manager Terry Francona did. Julio Lugo was charged with one error and made another questionable play. But Lugo didn't walk the first three batters. He didn't hit Richie Sexson, he didn't allow a two-run double to Jose Guillen.

And then like it never happened, he turned around and pitched a flawless second and third, and a harmless fourth. Then in the fifth more trouble -- a walk, three hits, and two runs. He was gone after five, having allowed seven runs, five hits, and five walks with one strikeout.

"I wonder," he said of the first inning. "I don't really know what happened myself."

The questions to Matsuzaka were tougher last night. He has been given the benefit of the doubt up until now. Now everyone is wondering what's up? What's with the one-inning fiascos?

"It's not something I think about when I am actually standing out on the mound, so starting from the second inning on, I really try to start fresh," Matsuzaka said through his interpreter when asked if he's letting his team down.

Pressure? There's got to be pressure. Every time he moves he's got myriad cameras following him. Every day he sits at his locker and answers questions from the Japanese media. Every day, his every movement is caught on camera and his every word is reported.

"During the past few games, the manager, the catcher, the coaching staff, and [Jason Varitek] have all told me to be confident in my own stuff and to pitch my own game," he said. "So I feel that I have been able to approach the game in the same manner that I usually do. I don't think it's a lack of confidence in my stuff that is a problem."

Dice-K acknowledged he changed his routine before last night's game. He would not reveal what he did differently.

Dice-K started by walking Ichiro Suzuki , who stole second. In their first matchup, Dice-K mastered Ichiro, but this time the Mariner leadoff man drew two walks and flew out deep to center.

Dice-K would not buy into the reasoning that hitters are benefiting from good scouting reports.

"I don't think so," he said. "I think so far that the runs that I have allowed to score have really been my responsibility, but at the same time I don't think we are even at the point that we can say that the batters are getting used to me."

Opponents are batting .221 against Matsuzaka with the bases empty. They are hitting .271 with runners on base. His ERA is 3.00 when he retires the first batter and 11.45 when the leadoff batter reaches base.

Seventeen of the 23 runs he has allowed have come in six innings, and he has allowed only six runs in the other 32 innings -- good for a 1.69 ERA. Matsuzaka retired eight straight batters and 10 of 11 after the first inning, in which he threw a whopping 35 pitches.

It could be the erratic and inconsistent performance continues throughout his first full season in the majors. When he's good, he's very good. It just might be that he will dominate in some games and be inconsistent in others. He may have a season similar to what Josh Beckett had last season where he won 16 games but it just didn't feel like it.

But his stuff is so good he will likely win 15-plus games.

"They didn't knock him all over the park," said Francona. "When he commands, he will go very deep in games. And right now it's a little bit of a battle for him."

Francona believes that once Dice-K commands the strike zone better, the strike zone will expand for him. Right now it's pretty tight because he's just been all over the place.

For now, it's nice that Okajima has a friend to talk to. At some point soon, however, Dice-K's best friend needs to be the pitcher's mound, which right now it appears to be his worst enemy.

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