Dice-K dominates in Sox debut
Right-hander tosses two scoreless innings, strikes out three
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For just one quick instant, maybe some over-reactive soul wondered if maybe this $103.1 million acquisition from Japan wasn't all he was cracked up to be. But after the first (unofficial) pitch that Daisuke Matsuzaka threw in a Red Sox uniform was smacked for a double by a Boston College batter named Johnny Ayers, the scouting reports everyone has been hearing about for months came to life.
Matsuzaka's grand opening -- witnessed by more than 200 media members and a packed house of 7,534 at City of Palms Park -- was an enticing preview of what the Red Sox hope to see throughout 2007.
As advertised, Matsuzaka displayed a wide arsenal of pitches in mowing down six of the seven Boston College hitters he faced. It added up to a 9-1 victory for Matsuzaka and the Red Sox.
"I am not 100 percent satisfied with how I pitched today," said Matsuzaka. "But considering the time of the season, where it is now, it's OK."
In a prelude to his official exhibition season debut, which will take place on Tuesday at Jupiter against the Marlins, Matsuzaka threw 25 pitches -- 19 of them for strikes. He allowed one hit over two innings and struck out three.
"He seems as poised as anybody," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "He seems very natural at dealing with everyday media pressures he has to deal with. He has a happy personality about him and he looks as though he handles it extremely well. If there's no sense of butterflies at all, you're not human."
With a certifiable buzz in the air, Matsuzaka, donning a red jersey and red cap, took the mound at 6:01 p.m. ET to begin his warmups.
Ayers put a dent into the hype for a brief moment and collected a keepsake for his scrapbook.
"I was looking for a fastball and I got it," said Ayers. "It was euphoria, definitely euphoria. The shortstop and second baseman came over and said, 'Congratulations man, that's real cool.' So it was just exciting. It's hard to put it into words. Any time you have a chance to go up against a guy like that and have success, it's obviously a tremendous feeling."
After the leadoff double, Matsuzaka got comfortable and the Boston College hitters looked helpless.
Ryan Hutchinson hit a tapper to Varitek for the first out, with Ayers advancing to third. However, Ayers would get no further, as Matsuzaka struck out Jared McGuire and Peter Frates on fastballs. The first K was looking on a 92-mph fastball and the latter came in at 91.
"He started out having to get out of a jam, and he did," Varitek said. "He did very well. It's still the first outing. We still have a lot of ground to gain. Keep taking steps. Just getting out there and getting him on the mound and being a part of it -- being a part of the Red Sox for the first time -- was a good start."
As Red Sox manager Terry Francona reminded everyone, however, this wasn't exactly striking out Derek Jeter with the bases loaded at Yankee Stadium in September.
"I don't mean to be sarcastic, but if he gets rattled against Boston College, we're all in trouble," Francona said. "That probably wasn't going to happen."
Instead, Matsuzaka calmly reeled off 11 pitches in that first inning, 10 for strikes.
He had hoped to begin getting a sense of the Major League strike zone. But that plan was foiled a bit by the fact the game was handled by college umpires.
"I spoke to Varitek after I pitched, and he told me which ones were supposed to be called strikes," said Matsuzaka.
The second inning was another clinic. Matsuzaka sent down Joe Ayers on a grounder to second, thanks to his hardest pitch of the night, a 94-mph fastball. Then, Matsuzaka went back to the strikeout, freezing Jeff Shomaker on a 91-mph fastball. Matsuzaka finished the night with a curveball that Jeff Ruiz popped to second baseman Dustin Pedroia on the outfield grass.
Next time out, the Marlins should give Matsuzaka a better idea of where he is at.
"What I would really want to see is how the batters will react, and I also want to make sure what the strike zone in the U.S. is all about," said Matsuzaka. "I'll be able to do that during the next game for the first time."
Francona cautioned everyone to look beyond the hype and view the night in a more realistic fashion.
"I thought he was fine," Francona said. "I know there's an immense amount of interest. But it was the first Spring Training game -- get your feet on the ground, throw your pitches, throw strikes."
Still, nobody could be oblivious to the atmosphere that was in the ballpark.
"There was interest," Francona said. "You look in Boston College's dugout, they're all on the top step. You look in our dugout, they're all on the top step. It was fun to be a part of it. I think more encouraging is watching him throw the ball and watching him interact with his teammates. I talked about it before, I think he gets it. That's probably the best way I can say it."
In their ongoing effort to offset the language barrier with other means of communication, the battery seemed to have a smooth opening night.
"We spent time this week just trying to talk through the game and make sure of some things," said Varitek. "The things we talked about, we immediately had to get into it right away. That was good, going through finger signals was really big. There was no practice going into it. It was good."
In his time with the Red Sox, Varitek has caught greats like Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. Clearly, he's excited about watching the evolution of Matsuzaka.
"I think I got excited as soon as I caught his first bullpen," said Varitek. "It shows you the feel he has for the baseball. He's got a good feel for the baseball."
And after that first pitch, the baseball didn't go very far beyond Varitek's glove.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.