Nothing 'normal' about Dice-K
Matsuzaka gives new definition to normalcy in his debut
KANSAS CITY -- In the end, it was startling in its routine, impressive in its results.Baseball, poets say, cannot be scripted. Perhaps Daisuke Matsuzaka can make an exception. On Thursday, he certainly turned exceptional into normal. His word. "Today, I waited for a long time," Dice-K said, "so I felt surprised how normal it felt. It's hard to talk about the emotions of the first start, because it was such a normal day for me." Normalcy may have never seemed so lofty, or set such a high precedent. Or seemed so confounding to one of two men to see every one of Matsuzaka's 108 pitches. "His ball moves funny. To me, it was like working a knuckleball pitcher," said Jeff Nelson, the plate umpire who spent the day looking over catcher Jason Varitek's shoulders. "His ball definitely moves differently. It will break every which way, like I haven't seen out of anyone else's hand. You just don't know. That's why I liken it to knuckleball pitchers." While no one quite shared Nelson's perspective, a Kauffman Stadium crowd of 23,170 and 200-plus media had the same view of the Japanese wunderkind's main-stage debut on a bone-chilling Midwestern afternoon that warmed Red Sox Nation's hearts. There were no seeds of doubts, no buyer's remorse. No second guesses, only first impressions. All brilliant. Seven innings. One run. Six hits. Ten strikeouts. One walk. In the eye of his own hurricane, he was placid. Far from the madding crowd of reporters and shutterbugs, he was alone. He stood on a 10-inch hill, in the middle of the diamond and in the center of the baseball universe, and turned it into a mountain. Dice-K was graceful under pressure, broad-shouldered under a heavy workload, no longer under wraps. It was pretty much what everyone had expected -- quite remarkable, when you think about the height of those expectations. Matsuzaka himself had. "I felt happy about the expectations of people but, at the same time, I thought they were a bit extreme," Dice-K said through his interpreter, Masa Hoshino. "So it's great to be able to go out there the first time and record a victory." Except for the inaudible buzz in the air, the prelude to this long-awaited event was ordinary, although twice as many people filtered into the park than is normal for an early-April midweek afternoon.
Drawn by Dice-K curiosity, they were still Kansas City blue. While only a few looked over the barrier in the left-field corner to espy Matsuzaka in the bullpen warming up, dozens crowded around the corresponding wall on the opposite side to watch Zack Greinke.(A worthy show: Greinke virtually matched Matsuzaka through his own seven-inning splendor.) When Dice-K leapt out of the third-base dugout midway in the first and made his brisk way to the mound, red-clad Boston fans arose throughout the stands with a welcome ovation. They were plentiful, but outnumbered. David DeJesus lined Matsuzaka's third pitch sharply to center for a single, and the leatherlungs screamed, "Take that, Dice-K!" But as much as the Royals and their fans wanted to say, "No Dice-K," they were powerless. Not hopeless: they had their chances. But whenever they were one hit from breaking down the door, Matsuzaka slammed it in their faces. In the first, he was tentative. The DeJesus leadoff single, his only walk to the third batter. But after turning Emil Brown's comebacker into an inning-ending double play, Matsuzaka shook his fist in celebration, sensing escape from his only rough spot. In the second and third, he was efficient. Six straight outs, on 25 pitches. By the fourth, he was serious. Seriously nasty. Like a right-handed sandbagger who had been shooting left-handed to appear vulnerable then finally switches hands to humiliate the pool hall, Matsuzaka ran the table. In that fourth, he fanned Esteban German on a 93-mph heater, Mark Teahen on a 78-mph bender and Brown on a 94-mph fastball. "He used all his pitches. At different times, different pitches were better," Varitek said. You can score on Dice-K, as DeJesus demonstrated by pulling the righty's 80th pitch into Kansas City's right-field bullpen. You just can't rally against him. He possesses a pitcher's most important asset, the ability, and stubbornness, to work out of trouble. Example: Sixth inning, Brown follows up DeJesus' homer with a two-out double to straddle second with the tying run; Dice-K responds by striking out Alex Gordon with his hardest pitch of the day, his one and only 95-mph fastball. "I consider myself the type of pitcher who gets stronger as the games goes long," Matsuzaka said. "Today, it was very much true." To the naked eye, so was the gyroball. If you buy the notion that it is nothing more than the pitch formerly known as a screwball, that is what Gordon appeared to pick on for his first Major League hit. In the fifth, the highly regarded left-handed-hitting third baseman reached out for a ball breaking away from him, and lifted it over shortstop Julio Lugo's head into shallow left for the hit. "The what?" Jeff Nelson, the plate umpire, said. "Gyro what? That is a stumper for me." Nelson explained. "It wouldn't do me any good to read about pitches. Because then you might start looking for things. We just react to what we see, and call it." And speaking of hidden tricks -- no one had said anything about Matsuzaka being able to field. Which, on this first day at least, he did astonishingly, pouncing on balls as a cat on a ball of yarn. Like a human Roomba, he glided to suck up balls all over the infield ... comebacker, 30 feet to the left of the mound, 15 feet in front of the plate. So make him an early contender for a Gold Glove, along with Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award. Maybe he'll even campaign for the Silver Slugger during Interleague Play. No telling yet whatever other awards Matsuzaka will collect, but Mr. Photogenic is a lock. Even Thursday, cameras which have been snapping him for months scurried behind the plate before the start of every inning, capturing his warm-up pitches. Even though they never changed. If the same will be true of Matsuzaka's game pitches, he is in for a heck of a ride, with all of Red Sox Nation riding shotgun.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.