Against Pirates, Matsuzaka Is 'as Good as Advertised'

Daisuke Matsuzaka
Daisuke Matsuzaka looks like he's worth Boston's money as he absolutely dazzles in a spring training outing against Pittsburgh. (Gene J. Puskar - AP)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2007

BRADENTON, Fla., March 21 -- Daisuke Matsuzaka handed the ball to his manager, tucked a glove the color of a raspberry-flavored soft drink under his arm and doffed his cap to the sellout crowd at McKechnie Field, which already was on its feet as Matsuzaka made his way to the visitors' dugout. Had the rules of baseball decorum not prevented it, the Pittsburgh Pirates hitters in the opposite dugout and the bevy of scouts behind home plate might have joined the standing ovation.

Matsuzaka, the Boston Red Sox' pricey Japanese import, had just stifled the Pirates for 5 2/3 innings with an assortment of well-placed, well-disguised pitches -- some of which seemed to defy definition under the framework of the standard American repertoire -- providing a sneak preview of what American League hitters are in for this season, Matsuzaka's first on these shores.

"I didn't have much fun standing in the box against that guy," said Chris Duffy, the Pirates' leadoff hitter Wednesday. "It was probably the most effective pitcher I've ever seen with that many [distinct] pitches."

As curious as anyone about the Red Sox' international man of mystery, the Pirates' hitters found they could scarcely identify Matsuzaka's pitches -- even after viewing them in slow motion over and over on a computer monitor afterward -- let alone hit them.

As the final innings played out, with the starters long since out of the game, Duffy and Don Kelly, a Pirates minor leaguer who started at shortstop, gazed at a computer screen in their clubhouse, viewing their at-bats against Matsuzaka and trying in vain to figure out what the heck kind of pitch it was that Matsuzaka threw to Kelly in the fourth inning.

It floated up in the strike zone at 75 mph, according to the ESPN radar gun. It didn't break, drop, cut, rise, back up or sink. It just kind of . . . floated.

"It wasn't a curve. It wasn't a change-up," Kelly said. "It was kind of like a splitter. . . . It was something different. It could've been the gyroball."

Well, hold on a minute. Whatever it was, we can say with a high degree of certainty that it was not that.

By now, it is clear around baseball that the notion of Matsuzaka's mysterious gyroball -- the supposedly revolutionary "bullet-spin" pitch that was invented in a Japanese laboratory and is said to be capable of super-physical movement -- is a myth, although Matsuzaka certainly doesn't mind if batters think he throws it.

"I was waiting, in the back of my mind, for that -- whatever you call it -- gyroball?" Duffy said. "But I was just trying to swing at strikes."

Matsuzaka, who cost the Red Sox $103.1 million in guaranteed salary and a "posting" fee to his former Japanese team, hardly needs any gimmick pitches to dominate hitters. He did perfectly fine Wednesday with his vast array of regular ones, including a hard four-seam fastball that reached 95 mph, a two-seam fastball, a "cut" fastball, a curve, slider, change-up and splitter. And he also throws a pitch known in Japan as a "shuto" that essentially is a screwball -- though he didn't use it Wednesday.

Complicating matters further, he varies the speeds on his fastballs and breaking pitches, so that those four pitches sometimes seem like eight.

Matsuzaka's final pitching line was 5 2/3 innings, one hit, one walk, one earned run and seven strikeouts. Three of the strikeouts came at the expense of Jason Bay, the Pirates' all-star left fielder. "He's as good as advertised," Bay said.

"He abused Bay," marveled one scout in attendance. "And that's hard to do -- Bay is a good hitter."

Duffy scored the Pirates' only run against Matsuzaka, reaching base when the latter's second pitch of the game, a slider, nicked him on the thigh. Three batters later, Adam LaRoche stroked the only hit of the game off Matsuzaka.

But they could not touch Matsuzaka after that. At times, he seemed to be toying with the Pirates' young hitters. It wasn't just Matsuzaka's pitches, but also his delivery that threw off the Pirates. Matsuzaka's windup features an exaggerated pause at the top and a slow descent to an explosion of motion.

"He's real deceptive and slow," Duffy said. "You're off-balance already, and then it seems like it's already on you."

In the third inning, with two strikes on Duffy, Matsuzaka threw "something in between a slider and a cutter," Duffy said, and he barely managed to foul it off.

"Then," Duffy said, "the change-up."

Duffy whiffed at the pitch and shook his head. "I think I yelled 'wow' as I was swinging," he said later. "But it's tough to get upset. I had a lot of fun."

Matsuzaka's summary of his own performance was both succinct and surprising: "I was happy that I was able to pitch well," he said, "despite struggling a little bit."

Struggling? Well, he did issue that one walk, and he did go to a three-ball count to one batter in the fourth inning. He also struck out three times at the plate -- never once lifting the bat from his shoulder, per instructions from the Red Sox brass. And he needs to get familiar with Major League Baseball's rules -- at one point, home plate umpire Wally Bell had to inform Matsuzaka that he is not allowed to put his fingers to his mouth while on the mound. From then on, he did it on the grass behind the mound, which is allowed.

So apparently, as if a batter doesn't have enough to worry about, what with the four fastballs and breaking balls, the change-up, the splitter and the mythical gyroball, now they have to be on guard for the spitball, too.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company