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4/13/2007 09:56:00 AM

Wild Card: Rising up to the Monster

Zack Greinke
Zack Greinke, above, and Seattle's Felix Hernandez have matched Daisuke Matsuzaka pitch-for-pitch in head-to-head matchups this season.
Leon Halip/WireImage.com
By Cliff Corcoran

One of the sexiest storylines of the past offseason was the mystery surrounding Daisuke Matsuzaka , the 26-year-old ace of the Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League. Who would sign him? How much would they pay? How difficult would his transition be to the major leagues? The answers to the first two ("the Red Sox" and "a lot") came all the way back in mid-December. Now that the baseball season is two weeks old, we have some early returns on the third question ("very well, thank you"), but in a curious twist, the most compelling thing about Matsuzaka’s first two major-league starts has not been the Monster himself, but the man on the mound when Matsuzaka was in the dugout.

Matsuzaka’s first start came in the final game of the Red Sox’s opening series in Kansas City. The opposing pitcher that afternoon was Zack Greinke, who upon his arrival in the majors in 2004 generated a fair amount of hype himself. Greinke put together a strong rookie campaign at 20, earning high marks for his savvy and maturity on the mound, but struggled in his sophomore season and soon found himself out of action due to a debilitating bout with social anxiety disorder. Greinke spent most of 2006 confronting his demons away from the ballpark, but managed to pitch his way back to the majors for a trio of relief outings in a late-September callup. Still, no one expected him to break camp as a member of the Royals’ rotation this spring. He not only did that, but he matched Matsuzaka pitch-for-pitch in his 2007 debut, striking out seven Red Sox, including David Ortiz thrice, and walking just one over seven innings while allowing just one earned run. Greinke was undone by an unearned run in the fifth, taking a hard-luck loss, but picked up right where he left off in his next outing in Toronto, walking none and striking out five in six innings while again allowing just one earned run, this time picking up the win. Johan Santana may have an iron grip on the American League Cy Young award for the immediate future, but if Greinke keeps it up, he should pick up a few votes and walk away with the Comeback Player of the Year award at the tender age of 23.

Matsuzaka’s second start came this past Wednesday in Fenway Park in the second game of the Sox’s three-game series with the Mariners. His Fenway debut was the most eagerly anticipated sporting event of the year in New England, even before the Patriots fell to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, but Matsuzaka’s thunder was stolen by a pitcher that makes Greinke look like an old man, 21-year-old Felix Hernandez. Like Greinke, Hernandez arrived in the major leagues with the word "phenom" stamped boldly across his forehead. Dubbed "King Felix" before he ever threw a major league pitch, Hernandez lived up to the hype as best a 19-year-old could over 12 starts in his rookie season of 2005, but, much like Greinke, showed a disappointing regression in his sophomore season. Unfair as it might have been, Hernandez, who just reached legal drinking age this past Sunday, had his doubters coming into his second full major league season, but silenced most of them with a stellar Opening Day performance against the A’s in which he struck out 12 men while allowing just three hits and two walks over eight scoreless innings. The rest he shut up on Wednesday, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning at Fenway and shrugging off a J. D. Drew single to complete a one-hit shutout, again walking just two men along the way. Hernandez’s two starts stand as the top single-game performances of each of the first two weeks of the season. If he keeps this up, Santana’s iron grip on the Cy Young just might be loosening.

Hernandez, Greinke, and Matsuzaka could be three of most exciting pitchers in the American League this season, their performances made all the more compelling by their backstories of age, illness, and roots, respectively. As for Matsuzaka himself, his Fenway debut wasn’t quite as impressive as his 10-K, one-run domination of the Royals in his major league debut, but one wonders if the eight hits, three runs, and mere four strikeouts he registered in that game weren’t yet another effect of the wintry weather that has haunted baseball in the Northeast Corridor over the first two weeks of the season.

One of the quirkier items out of Yankee camp this spring was the fact that New York’s own Japanese import, lefty starter Kei Igawa, took to wearing sunglasses on the mound in day games because, due in part to the glut of domed stadiums in the Japanese Leagues, he hadn’t pitched in daylight in two years and found he was distracted by the glare of the Florida sun. Given that, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that Igawa and Matsuzaka might have been effected by the cold snap in the Northeast more than your typical major league hurler.

That certainly seemed to be the case in Igawa’s first outing, which was perhaps the worst of a series of awful starts by the Yankee rotation amid the near-freezing temperatures and snow flurries that swept through the Bronx last week (though the cold didn’t seem to bother AL batting leader Akinori Iwamura, who went 3 for 7 in the Bronx with a double and a pair of walks). Curiously, Igawa pitched for the Hanshin Tigers, a team whose home park is an open-air stadium, in the Central League, in which just two of the six stadiums are domes.

Matsuzaka, meanwhile, pitched in the Pacific League, in which three of the six teams, including Matsuzaka’s Seibu Lions, play in domes and one of the remaining three play half of their home games in a dome (that team, the Orix Buffaloes, split their games between the home parks of the two teams that were merged to form them, the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and Ichiro Suzuki’s former team, the Orix BlueWave). It would stand to reason, then, that Matsuzaka would be even more susceptible to the elements than Igawa. That could help explain Matsuzaka’s more pedestrian second start, as I’m not convinced that the free-swinging Mariners are really that much better of an offensive team than the new-look Royals. Of course, if allowing three runs on eight hits and two walks over seven innings is a "pedestrian" start for Matsuzaka, the American League, and Igawa’s Yankees in particular, could be in a whole heap of trouble. Then again, the pitchers are usually ahead of the hitters at this point in the season, Just ask Alex Gordon.

Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.

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posted by SI.com | View comments |  

Comments:

Posted: April 15, 2007 8:25 PM   by Anonymous
King Felix is gonna be one of the top 5 pitchers ever if he keeps it up at this pace. His stuff is nasty and hes got that cockyness to him which gets him and his teamates fired up. WATCH OUT...But Francisco Liriano is gonna be a top 3 pitcher ever..
Posted: April 16, 2007 3:01 PM   by Anonymous
Your gonna call that this early in their careers? Liriano has thrown one season and your going call him a top 3 pitcher ever.....
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