Dice-K can finally focus

Associated Press
Daisuke Matsuzaka: The Japanese pitcher is more relaxed this year with less scrutiny from the media.

FORT MYERS, Fla. --- The media frenzy is finished. The interest in the gyroball is missing. The curiosity about the Japanese pitcher is gone.


Daisuke Matsuzaka is no longer a major-league rookie. This spring training is already much calmer than his first one with the Red Sox.

"I know where everything is," the $103 million pitcher said through a translator. "I know the layout of the facilities and things like that, so it's been a lot easier being back this year."

Only about 20 reporters spoke with Matsuzaka after his second day at camp Monday. Last year, at his first official news conference of spring training, there were about 100 media members plus nine satellite trucks.

That event was televised live to Japan, where it was 7 a.m. -- must-see TV after Boston paid $51.1 million for the right to negotiate with him and another $52 million for his six-year contract.

Most of that pressure has disappeared. The burden of making up for the absence of Curt Schilling has been added.

Dice-K threw 41 pitches Monday, ignored by most of the media. Schilling is the team's big story now.

"I think at the end of the season last year, I had already decided that I'd put a lot of pressure on myself this year to perform really well," Matsuzaka said Monday. "So that was decided before I knew about Curt's injury. But now that I do know, I'd like to do my best to fill whatever holes I can."

Dice-K had a solid shot at moving up to the No. 2 spot in the rotation, behind Josh Beckett, even before it was disclosed last week that rehabilitation of a shoulder injury would sideline Schilling at least until the All-Star break.

Matsuzaka will be in that spot at the first official workout for pitchers and catchers Saturday, two days after they're scheduled to report. Four members of the projected rotation -- Beckett, Matsuzaka, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz -- already are in camp. Only Tim Wakefield wasn't there Monday.

Last season, Matsuzaka lived up to his billing as perhaps Japan's best pitcher.

In his first game with Boston, he allowed one run and struck out 10 in seven innings of a 4-1 win at Kansas City. In the first half of the season, he was 10-6 with a 3.84 ERA, 123 strikeouts and 38 walks.

Then, the long grind of the season took its toll. In the second half, he was 5-6 with a 5.19 ERA, only 78 strikeouts and 42 walks. His fatigue peaked at an unaccustomed time.

"In Japan, it usually comes around June or July," Matsuzaka said. That's "when I feel the most tired. I can build myself back up toward the end of the year and toward the playoffs.

"But what happened last year was I couldn't time it as well. So I just felt the fatigue just dragged on gradually all the way throughout September."

His problems continued in the playoffs, when he failed to get out of the fifth inning in his first two starts. But he earned the win in the seventh game of the American League Championship Series in Cleveland when he gave up two runs in five innings.

And in Game 3 of Boston's sweep of Colorado in the World Series, he came through again, allowing two runs in 5Q innings of a 10-5 win.

His second spring training is under way. His regular season begins in Tokyo, where the Red Sox will face the Oakland Athletics on March 25 and 26.

Matsuzaka's participation is uncertain because his wife is due to give birth about that time.

He didn't talk about that, but he had no qualms about discussing baseball, especially because he can now go about his business without having video- cameras trailing him around camp.

"Compared to last year," Matsuzaka said, "things are going to be a lot more comfortable, a lot more familiar. So, in that sense, there's going to be a lot less stress. So, hopefully, I can take some of that energy and really focus it on baseball."



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