04/10/07 7:38 PM ET
Fenway faithful await Dice-K's debut
Red Sox Nation buzzing a day before Matsuzaka's start
Ichiro and Dice-K are not alone. Both have countryman teammates -- Seattle catcher Kenji Johjima and Boston reliever Hideki Okajima -- as the Japanese impact on Major League Baseball continues to spiral.The Red Sox pair is expected to have a profound effect on a region with only a minimal prior Japanese influence -- a reason, of course, the Dice-K phenomenon crosses foul lines. Boston's estimated Japanese population is a mere 5,000, but Matsuzaka makes the city a magnet for tourists -- as Hideki Matsui has enhanced New York as a destination for Japanese travelers. Nor is Dice-K vs. Ichiro the only Wednesday night intrigue. Before a string of snow-outs tossed the Mariners' rotation, Matsuzaka was set to face Miguel Batista. Now he draws Felix Hernandez, whose own Opening Night performance (12 strikeouts in eight shutout innings against Oakland) may have been the young season's only one more impressive than Dice-K's debut in Kansas City. Add it all up, and cue Ethel Merman ... "Another Opening Night, Another Show ..." When Suzuki steps in to face Dice-K at 7:05 p.m. ET -- 8:05 a.m. Thursday Japan time -- they will not set big-league precedents. Ichiro himself went 3-for-7 in 2001 against another former Japanese ace and Boston right-hander, Hideo Nomo, and through the recent years the growing numbers of Japanese pitchers and hurlers who brought their games to the Majors have criss-crossed. However, they will set new heights for hysteria. It was already in full swing Tuesday, when even an Opening Day just seemed to be obstruction. For Matsuzaka, the event will be seminal, on many levels. Although he acquired his "visa" to Red Sox Nation when signed four months ago, he has spent only three days in the "country." He visited for his introductory media conference in December, and came here Sunday night in anticipation of his home debut. There is the historic yard ... "Many great pitchers have performed at Fenway Park. When I stand there, special emotions may come to me. This game means a lot more to me personally (then his debut in Kansas City). I think that [Fenway] is a sacred place." And the reunion with Ichiro ... "Ever since he left Japan to go to the Majors, he is someone I've wanted to face again." Understandable: During 1999 and 2000, the only two seasons both were in the Japanese League, Matsuzaka held Ichiro to a .235 average, and only two extra base hits in 34 at-bats. Dice-K is in the midst of making his first three starts (the Angels will follow) against teams which trained in Arizona and haven't yet had a first-hand look at him. That could be a considerable boost to getting him off to a good stat, judging by his Ichiro history. The first time the two met, on May 16, 1999, Matsuzaka struck out the established All-Star three times, but could ring him up only once more in 31 subsequent at-bats. A more recent Matsuzaka foe is Johjima, who did not make his own way to Seattle until last season. Johjima has some simple advice to his Mariners teammates: "I would first tell them to pray." Hopefully, they won't pray for snow. They've proven to be too good at that.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.