04/05/07 8:42 PM ET
Nothing 'normal' about Dice-K
Matsuzaka gives new definition to normalcy in his debut
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.