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The myth behind the man (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday March 27, 2007 12:20PM; Updated: Tuesday March 27, 2007 2:56PM
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Matsuzaka has worked closely with catcher Jason Varitek this spring to get on the same page on how to attack hitters.
Matsuzaka has worked closely with catcher Jason Varitek this spring to get on the same page on how to attack hitters.
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Wrote Valentine, "He is very confident, and he will get hit and it all depends on how he reacts ... I think he is made of the right stuff and will learn from his mistakes. He likes the big stage. I'd say 15 wins if he has a good bullpen. He will have a few really good games."

See, Matsuzaka's repertoire is so diverse and his talent so real that he does not need embellishment. You want more of the truth? It doesn't get any better than hearing from the man himself. I found Matsuzaka to be a thoughtful, articulate man when I interviewed him (with the assistance of an interpreter) before spring training began for the cover story of the SI Baseball Preview issue. On several occasions after a question was translated Matsuzaka would close his eyes or look upward and go, "Hmmmm." You could see him give careful consideration to the questions, rather than just spitting back stock answers. Here are excerpts of my exclusive interview with Matsuzaka, portions of which have been edited for length and clarity.

SI: Didn't you begin playing baseball as an outfielder?

DM: Yes. Up through 10th grade. Up until that year I played both pitcher and outfield. Starting in 11th grade I converted to pitcher.

SI: Was that your choice?

DM: Initially I wanted to make it as a professional baseball player as a hitter. The fact that the team had sort of ran out of pitchers might have had something to do with [converting].

SI: You have a slight turn in your delivery away from the hitter, which American coaches do not teach. Why?

DM: I initially had a tendency to open up my shoulder too much. To compensate for that I developed that pitching form and that's what stuck. The more I rotate my body, if I do it too much it takes a long time to turn around. I'm very conscious of not overdoing my shoulder turn.

SI: The Japanese concept of maximum training effort, doryoku, seems very different from American training.

DM: Doryoku, doryoku ... hmm .. I've never been one to sort of say self-congratulatingly I worked very hard. Doryoku just means practice, and to me that's self evident. You practice. Instead of looking at it from a perspective of maximum effort, I've had a goal in mind and it's practice toward that goal which is most important.

I'm wondering out loud what the outside image is of the concept of doryoku -- if that simply doesn't exist in America or is similar but different. If there's something you can't do, if there's a skill you don't have, it's natural to do what it takes to strive to that point. But that's a highly personal thing. If you ask other Japanese players you might get a different response each time. There are people who are very stoic and focused on maximum effort every time.

SI: You said you have "a goal in mind." What is it?

DM: Ultimately baseball is a team sport. For me the ultimate goal was to win the Japan series and become national champions. As part of that large objective there are many small goals that need to be accomplished. The one goal, of course, is to win the championship. But in the context of that overarching one there are many, many more to get there.

SI: What was your between-starts routine in Japan?

DM: In the typical five days between I would play light catch the next day [after the start], Day 2 was a day off, Day 3 I would do long toss, Day 4 or 5 I would throw one bullpen session. If my pitch count was low on any given start I may do one abbreviated [bullpen] session on day 1.

SI: In the WBC championship game against Cuba you gave up a home run in the bottom of the first and then really locked down the game. Was that a good example of your competitiveness?

DM: That was the first batter in the bottom of the first. We had established a four-run lead. Given the [tournament] limitations on the pitch count, I went in sort of relaxed, without a sense of urgency. I came in with the thinking to let them hit into outs and keep my pitch count down. As soon as they hit the home run, I knew that philosophy is not going to work. I have to play aggressively.

SI: Do you anticipate any difficulty getting used to the major league baseball, which is slightly larger and has bigger seams?

DM: When I played in the WBC last year we played with the major league ball. We practiced for about three months prior to the WBC with it. At that time it was a difficult adjustment. Having gone through it, I see no problem.

The leather quality is different. The Japanese quality was something that I had gotten used to. On that level, there is just a little bit of difference. The Japanese ball may be easier to get movement. As I get used to [the major league ball] there may be more of a chance to get more movement on the ball.

SI: How do you like to spend time when you are not playing baseball?

DM: I enjoy playing golf. On the off days it's easier playing golf or spending time with the family, or going for a drive.

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