Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Matsuzaka Watch: Episode 1

Well ladies and gentlemen. Seibu versus SoftBank has concluded and Canyon of Heroes is here to bring you the low down on Daisuke Matsuzaka's first outing of the 2006 campaign. FYI...as the video highlights come from the SoftBank game recap, most of them are clips of the home team's success against Matsuzaka....hardly a fair picture of the game. But, there you have it.

In his "Seibu Blues", facing off against Fukuoka's Tsuyoshi Wada, Matsuzaka took the mound looking to capitalize on his MVP performance in the World Baseball Classic, which concluded in San Diego 10 days ago. Although he cruised through the first inning 1-2-3, showing unreal bite on his curve and electricity on his fastball, there was a wild pitch that sailed through the right handed hitter's box and went all the way to the backstop. Perhaps that pitch was a precursor of things to come.

In the second, he showed a bit of rust in giving up a LONG single off the wall [VIDEO] in left field to 2004 MVP and WBC cleanup hitter, Nobuhiko Matsunaka. A full count hanging curve to the next batter Julio Zuleta led to runners on 1st and 2nd with nobody out. In typically Japanese fashion, the next batter stepped in for the mandatory scarifice bunt (yes, in the 2nd inning of a scoreless game in March). In more idiotic fashion the following batter also chose to sneak a bunt in and failed. 2 outs. Talk about letting a pitcher off the hook. Matsuzaka got the next hitter to go quietly.

The third inning brought further deterioration of his control and you can see how a guy who is accustomed to throwing 120 pitches every 5 or 6 days would experience some difficulty after a 10 day layoff and a trip halfway around the world. A leadoff hit by Naoyuki Omura was followed by a sac bunt attempt that failed. The ball rolled foul saving him from total disaster and with his second chance, he chopped a little hit over the mound [VIDEO] putting two runners on again to start an inning. Naturally, with the same situation presenting itself in the 3rd as was present in the 2nd, Oh decided to sac bunt again. After two failed attempts, Mitsuru Honma fouled off several pitches and then worked a walk, filling the bases with nobody out.

The remarkable thing in this game was the fact that despite all the struggles early there was never a visit to the mound. Not even by the catcher. Jolbert Cabrera the #3 hitter for SoftBank worked a 3-0 count, and after Matsuzaka managed two strikes against him, walked in a run [VIDEO]. 1 to nothing SoftBank and threatening to break the game wide open with Matsunaka coming to bat yet again. Our hero proceeded to throw a fat hanging curve that the 2004 MVP hit dead on the screws. A screaming liner shot down the first baseline but was snared by Seibu firstbaseman Alex Cabrera who promptly stepped on the bag for the double play and pivoted for the throw to second. A split second faster and he may have had a chance at the triple play, but the gold star defensive effort energized Matsuzaka who got an over aggressive Zuleta on three wicked pitches.

Meanwhile, SoftBank left hander Tsuyoshi Wada was dealing. His three quarter release baffled Seibu hitters and he easily cruised through the early part of the ballgame. Where Matsuzaka faltered, Wada seemed to get stronger every inning. He was up to the challenge and seemed to relish the opportunity to face off against the man with all the accolades and hype. Cameras continually showed Wada smiling quietly to himself in the dugout between innings.

The fourth brought misfortune to Matsuzaka yet again. An easy grounder to short was absolutely butchered as shortstop Nakajima threw the ball over Cabrera's head at first putting a no out runner on to lead off. Forgoing the bunt in this inning, third baseman, and #7 hitter, Nobuhiro Matsuda singled on a poorly thrown curve setting the stage again with 1st and 2nd nobody out. NOW you get the sac bunt, which worked to perfection. 2nd and 3rd, one out. Naoki Matoba hitting in the 9-hole looked completely overmatched on the first two pitches, only to choke up and find success fouling off 12-15 offers from Matsuzaka. To his credit, he stayed cool and took his wind up. On a pitch high in the zone Matoba weakly singled [VIDEO] scoring the runner from third and making the game 2 to nothing. A 1-4-3 double play later and the inning was over. The run was unearned and came back to haunt Matsuzaka and Seibu in the end.

A home run off the bat of Hiroyuki Nakajima (Kaz Matsui's successor at short) had Seibu back in the game with Matsuzaka absolutely cruising. The double play he started kicked him into gear and the Hawks barely touched him the rest of the way. He ended the game after 8 complete innings, 131 pitches in the books, and a one run deficit. The eighth was his strongest inning, striking out 2 on filthy pitches, and you got the feeling he could work about 3 innings more. Unreal.

The top of the 9th turned out to be the last half frame of the ballgame as Seibu rallied to put runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out, down one run. The next two batters, Hiroshi Hirao and Kotaro Sekida struck out in humiliatingly easy fashion.[VIDEO] Not even a ball in play for a chance at the tying run. Matsuzaka takes the loss. Here's his final line:

What did we learn about Daisuke Matsuzaka from this start. First, he needs to pitch on a regular schedule. Guys who regularly feature high pitch counts don't do well over-rested. Second, he's super cool under fire as his expression never changed during the worst jams of the game. His manager didn't need to talk to him and his catcher did little more than stand up and run through some signs. Third, if he gets on a roll it's over. Like all great pitchers, once he found his groove he was lights out. That's all for the first Matsuzaka Watch. Stay tuned for updates on the schedule and opponent for start #2. (Video Highlights from SoftBank broadcast)


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