Seven years later, Japanese stars meet
Dice-K gets better of Ichiro in historic Fenway showdown
BOSTON -- It took seven years of waiting and less than five minutes of action to resolve the great American Ichiro vs. Dice-K debate.
Given one at-bat stateside, in front of millions of television viewers from New England to East Asia, would Ichiro Suzuki beat Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Red Sox's new star?
Strike one: enough flashbulbs snapped to light a corner of New England. An unfazed Ichiro stepped out and then returned to the batter's box.
Strike two: a swing and a miss. A great rumble erupted within Fenway Park, gathering speed. "Dice-K! Dice-K!" boomed the fans.
Matsuzaka paused at the top of his delivery, as is his custom, and then delivered pitch No. 3: a ball, inside. Ichiro bailed, and the crowd moaned.
That was followed by ball two and ball three, both of which missed just inside. Each time, Ichiro collapsed his knee, barely turning away. Did he think about biting?
"Well, those were balls," said Ichiro through his interpreter after the game.
Matsuzaka wound back and then delivered the payoff pitch. A swing.
Ichiro connected, shooting the ball fast up the middle. Matsuzaka went left and snared it. He threw the ball to first, ending the sequence, and the crowd roared.
It was almost too perfect that the best active pitcher from Japan made his Fenway debut against his countryman, Japan's greatest living hitting export and a potential Hall of Famer for his contributions in America.
There was a reason that more than 170 Japanese media clogged the Fenway press box, that Ichiro and Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima conducted their first postgame interviews in Japanese (there were more reporters for those sessions than the ones in English).
Boston's always-knowledgeable baseball fans were well equipped to appreciate the significance of the moment. They pulled out their cameras in force, turning baseball's oldest park into a 21st-century laser light show.
Ichiro, seven years Matsuzaka's senior, said he was unbothered by the game's well-lit first pitch.
"If Daisuke had a camera and was taking pictures, that would be surprising to me," he said.
Matsuzaka didn't fare as well in his first appearance against Johjima after starting him with a first-pitch fastball for a strike. The Seattle catcher turned on the next pitch, roping a one-hopper to the left-field wall for a second-inning double.
Johjima added a nearly identical two-out double in the sixth inning, proving that he knew something the rest of baseball -- thus far, at least -- didn't.
Johjima went 32-for-118 with five homers against Matsuzaka in Japan and raised his career average against the Red Sox pitcher to .283 with a 2-for-3 night on Wednesday.
"I know what he throws," Johjima said through his interpreter. "I know what kind of pattern he gets into."
Ichiro, on the other hand, went 0-for- 5 and appeared frustrated in the fifth after striking out swinging at a pitch in the dirt. The 33-year-old Mariners center fielder went 8-for-34 against Matsuzaka in Japan before he crossed the Pacific seven years ago.
For now, he must face the questions: does Dice-K have his number? Ichiro said he was impressed by Matsuzaka's "presence," but laughed off the idea that his struggles against the Boston pitcher are part of a longer chapter.
"Well, I am different," he said, "and he is different. Because it's been seven years. So if he were the same, that would be the part that would be weird, not that he's changed."
Ichiro will have to wait two months, until June 25-27, for his probable next shot. Let the waiting begin.
Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.