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The Riddle
March 26, 2007
Splitter, slider, curve Fastballs: four-seam, two-seam, cut Shuuto, mad changeup
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March 26, 2007

The Riddle

Splitter, slider, curve Fastballs: four-seam, two-seam, cut Shuuto, mad changeup

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With an array of pitches as sublime and mesmerizing as haiku, $100 million import Daisuke Matsuzaka could tip the American League balance of power to the Red Sox--and explode the old myths about pampering pitchers

THE CHERUBIC FACE of Daisuke Matsuzaka bears a mysterious contentment, the calm self-assuredness of a kid who knows something you don't, who knows the questions before the exam is given. It's as if the pitching gods have let him in on a great secret, and it's safe with the chosen one. � The look is there even at the end of an exhausting day, in the cramped clubhouse of what the Boston Red Sox call their player development complex, a tract of green fields carved among industrial eyesores in a section of Fort Myers, Fla. Matsuzaka, 26, is still wearing his baseball undershirt and the rest of his uniform, some six hours after he dressed and long after many of his teammates have hit the back nine. Boston's new Japanese import put in the equivalent of heavy lifting for this early in spring training: 80 pitches from flat ground, 50 pitches off the bullpen mound and 50 pitches of live batting practice, followed by an hour of autographs, two press conferences (one to English-speaking journalists and one to the 150 Japanese journalists on hand expressly to record his every word, pitch and breath) and a lengthy sit-down interview with a Japanese television network.

What strikes you now about Matsuzaka, once you get beyond the knowing countenance, is that after all that throwing, never did he bother to ice his arm or shoulder. In major league locker rooms, ice packs are ubiquitous appendages for pitchers, who wrap their shoulder or elbow or both, the better to calm muscles, ligaments and tendons that have been stressed by the unnatural act of throwing a baseball. Relievers are known to ice after facing only one batter in a game.

Not Matsuzaka. He didn't ice after he threw 103 pitches in the bullpen the second time he stepped on a mound in spring training in 2007, more than twice the number of even the heartiest of his fellow Red Sox pitchers. He didn't ice after one of his twice-weekly 20-minute long-toss sessions, when he throws from the rightfield foul pole to the leftfield wall--a distance of about 300 feet--while taking only one step to load his arm. (Most pitchers throw half that distance.) In past years with the Seibu Lions, he wouldn't ice even after his frequent 300-pitch bullpen sessions, a program that would have been grounds for dismissal for any major league pitching coach who allowed it.

Then you reflect on the 250 pitches he threw in a 17-inning complete game in high school--the apex of a stretch in which he threw 54 innings in 11 days--and the 189 pitches he threw on Opening Day in 2003, the 160 pitches in his second start of the '05 season, the 145 pitches in his penultimate start for the Lions, the 588 innings he threw for Seibu before he turned 21 ( Oakland ace Rich Harden, 25, still hasn't logged that many big league innings) and the eight games last year in which he threw at least 130 pitches--more such games than all major league pitchers combined.

It's all unheard-of stuff Stateside. But it is explained by the concept of doryoku, or unflagging effort, which in Japanese baseball is seen as a prime virtue. The great home run hero Sadaharu Oh valued doryoku so highly that he included the word in every autograph.

You ask Matsuzaka, through an interpreter, about using ice, the standard American precaution, and what you get first is that knowing smile and a little laugh.

Then he says, "No, never."

Matsuzaka throws eight known pitches--eight!--and is tougher than Sanskrit for hitters to read because he has the confidence to throw any of them at any time and can put all of them in an open mailbox from 20 paces. He has the equipment to be the greatest rookie pitching phenomenon since Dwight Gooden in 1984, greater certainly than his forebearer Hideo Nomo, who for all the cross-cultural excitement he generated in 1995 won only 13 games.

More important, Matsuzaka is a potential agent of change. It's his throwing regimen, rather than his place of birth, that makes him the ultimate foreigner to major league baseball. If he succeeds in the U.S., he could transform the accepted industry practice of overprotecting pitchers. The system guarantees diminishing returns: Despite advances in medicine, nutrition and training, teams work pitchers less than ever before and yet pay them more.

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