03/24/08 5:19 AM ET
Dice-K returns home as visitor
Righty honored to get ball as Red Sox begin their title defense
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
One of the most revered figures in the history of Japanese baseball is back home -- this time as a visitor.
The man they simply refer to as Dice-K back in New England will kick off the 2008 season for the defending World Series champion Red Sox by taking the mound on Tuesday against the Oakland Athletics in a game that starts at 6:05 a.m. ET.
The game can be seen live on MLB.TV.
In most ports of Red Sox Nation, they'll be eating their breakfast and watching Matsuzaka all at the same time. But to those fans lucky enough to have a seat at Tokyo Dome, they'll simply be clapping or chanting.
The stage was set for Matsuzaka to pitch the opener when Red Sox ace Josh Beckett suffered a back injury.
"I am happy to return to Japan as a member of the world championship team," said Matsuzaka. "I am honored to be selected as the Opening Day starter."
Of all the moments in Boston's season-opening trip to Tokyo, nothing figures to be as memorable as the electricity that fills the dome-filled air when Matsuzaka steps on to the mound for the bottom of the first inning.
"It's going to be fun," said Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "I know [the other night] when [Hideki Okajima] came in the game -- the flashes and everything -- it was great. This is going to be exciting. I'm just as happy for him to be the Opening Day starter in Japan as he is."
For Matsuzaka isn't just excited, but also focused.
"I've already forgotten about last year," Matsuzaka said. "I did all right in the postseason games, but I'm not satisfied with my performance last year. But I hope to make the best of last year's experience."
Because the Red Sox would usually still be in Spring Training at this point, Sox manager Terry Francona will keep an eye on Matsuzaka's workload. Six innings and 85-90 pitches could be a reasonable estimate for a man who once threw 250 pitches in a high school game.
"There's no doubt, it's Opening Day, he's pitching in the country where he grew up. He's going to have a little more adrenaline," said Francona. "We'll certainly keep an eye on the amount of innings, pitch count."
The fans who watched Matsuzaka for so many years in Japan will always think of him as a nine-inning pitcher.
"I'd love to send him out there and let him try to pitch a complete game. We just probably can't shoot for that now," said Francona. "We're still at the stage where he's building arm strength. We're just trying to mix and match from a competitive nature and still trying to gain strength for the long season."
Matsuzaka certainly had his ups and downs last year, when he went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA. The Red Sox are looking forward to seeing a more polished product, one who now has a full season of Major League experience under his belt.
"I think Matsuzaka did a great job for us last year. First year in the Majors as a pitcher, it's tough," said Sox slugger David Ortiz. "Especially in the American League -- the American League has a lot of good hitters. The way he walked in and did what he did last year, I think it was outstanding.
"I know -- and everybody knows -- that he can get it done better taking advantage of the experience he has right now and I'm pretty sure he's going to have a great season, even better than last year, which was an outstanding season."
Believe it or not, this won't be the most hyped game Matsuzaka has pitched in Tokyo Dome. His first Japanese professional start for the Seibu Lions was against the Nippon Ham Fighters, who, at the time, played their home games at Tokyo Dome.
Most weeknight Nippon home games back then would draw about 15,000. Because Matsuzaka was making his pro debut, there was a packed house of 44,000.
All Matsuzaka did on the night of April 7, 1998 -- at the age of 18 -- was open with five perfect innings en route to a dominant victory. He wound up striking out nine and allowing two earned runs over eight innings in that game, throwing 132 pitches.
"I like throwing there, and even though it has been about two years since my last start, I still think I can handle the mound there," quipped Matsuzaka. "But I guess I don't attach too much meaning to each ballpark."
He does, however, attach some meaning to being the first pitcher out of the gate for his team in a season. As an Opening Day starter five times during his brilliant career in Japan, Matsuzaka knows what it will mean when he steps on the mound on Tuesday against the Oakland Athletics.
"It's the team's ace's job to do it, so I want to do my best for both Beckett and myself," said Matsuzaka, who will be opposed by Oakland's Joe Blanton.
This marks the third time Major League Baseball has opened its season in Japan, and first since the Yankees and Rays had the honor in 2004.
For Matsuzaka, it will mark the beginning of a season he hopes will be more consistent than last year.
"Most of the things that were a source of stress for me last season have disappeared and now I'm just able to practice," said Matsuzaka. "I'm feeling really good about it."
BOS: RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka (15-12, 4.40 ERA, 2007)
Matsuzaka returns to his homeland to become just the second native of Japan to start a season opener. Hideo Nomo started the 2000 opener for Detroit and the 2003 and 2004 openers for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Matsuzaka also becomes just the second pitcher ever to start a season opener in his home country outside the United States. Canadian Ryan Dempster started for the Marlins in Montreal on April 2, 2002.
OAK: RHP Joe Blanton (14-10, 3.95 ERA, 2007)
The right-hander gets his first start of the regular season after posting an 0-1 mark in four Cactus League starts for the A's. In 17 innings, he allowed 19 hits and nine earned runs for a 4.76 ERA. Blanton has recorded double figures in wins in each of his three first full seasons with Oakland, winning 12, 16 and 14 respectively from 2005 through last season.
A stiff neck will keep 1B Sean Casey from making his Red Sox debut in Japan. ... RHP Mike Timlin is also out of action for this series as he sustained a cut on his right ring finger that required two stitches. ... The Red Sox are in the midst of a three-country, 18-day road trip that will carry them over 16,000 miles in the air. ... This marks the earliest regular season opener in Major League history. ... The Red Sox are 51-55-1 in season openers, having lost their last two and six of their last seven.
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Wednesday: Red Sox (Jon Lester, 4-0, 4.57) at A's (Rich Harden, 1-2, 2.45), 6:07 a.m. ET
Friday: Red Sox (TBA) at Dodgers (TBA), 10:40 p.m. ET (Exhibition Dodger Stadium)
Saturday: Red Sox (TBA) at Dodgers (TBA), 10:10 p.m. ET (Exhibition LA Coliseum)
Sunday: Red Sox (TBA) at Dodgers (TBA), 4:10 p.m. ET (Exhibition Dodger Stadium)
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Mike Petraglia contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.