Late in Game 4 of the World Series, teammates burst into laughter and pointed toward Daisuke Matsuzaka’s head.
Coco Crisp had strategically placed a bubble gum balloon atop the 27-year-old righthander’s cap without him noticing.
Wondering what the jocularity was about, Matsuzaka finally noticed the bubble as it fell off his hat and he broke out in a grin; he then acknowledged the bow of a smiling David Ortiz.
”That smile is priceless,” said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. “What a great kid. What a competitor. He wants to be great. He does everything he can to get to that point. I know all of us are just so happy he’s on our team. He’s quite a talent and it’s going to be fun to see what he looks like next year and the year after. This kid is going to be a very good major league starting pitcher. He already is.”
Affectionately known as “Dice-K,” there’s no doubt Matsuzaka was a popular figure who earned his teammates’ respect because of his intensity, work ethic, and desire to win.
The Red Sox won a blind bid of $51.111 million Nov. 14, 2006, for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka’s agent, Scott Boras. Talks forged into the 11th hour late on Dec. 13, but the Sox and Boras agreed on a six-year, $52 million deal while flying back from Newport Beach, Calif., where Red Sox president Larry Lucchino and general manager Theo Epstein had flown on their own to make a deal happen.
The deal led to the largest press conference in Red Sox history, drawing more than 300 media from all over the country and Japan. Matsuzaka, overcoming cultural and language issues, excelled in his rookie season with a 15-12 record and 4.40 ERA.
Armed with a 93-94-mile-per-hour fastball, an excellent breaking pitch, slider, and changeup, Matsuzaka’s only weaknesses were elevated pitch counts and the inability to go deep into games.
Early in the season, Japanese print and television media recorded his every movement while matchups against Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki and the Yankees’ Hideki Matsui became bigger-than-life events in Japan, where games were usually broadcast in the wee hours of the morning before millions of viewers.
But Dice-K was only half the Japanese story.
The Red Sox signed free agent Hideki Okajima, a 31-year-old lefty from the Yomiuri Giants, mostly as a back-of-the bullpen reliever and a companion for Matsuzaka to ease the transition. Both pitchers had personal interpreters and staff to tend to their needs.
In spring training, pitching coach John Farrell, having watched mounds of video on his new lefty, taught Okajima a new changeup, a combination changeup/split-fingered pitch that became known as the “Okie-Dokie.” It froze righthanded hitters and was nasty to lefties. Okajima became major league baseball’s best setup man. He earned the final spot in the All-Star Game in a special fan vote and he became a bridge to Jonathan Papelbon.
”I loved watching him pitch,” said Papelbon. “I knew if Okie got through the eighth, I’d be coming in for the ninth. He made that happen for me. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to come in and close the door in the ninth. What a weapon. You have to give our organization so much credit for finding him and thinking he could make that jump from Japan to the big leagues. That was a great call right there.”
On his first major league pitch, Okajima served up a home run to Royals catcher John Buck on Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium. He then went 41 appearances before giving up his second home run and was virtually unhittable. At the All-Star break, Okajima had a 0.83 ERA. While Okajima faded in the second half - 4.56 ERA - he was still very effective. He was shut down Sept. 14 for 10 days to reenergize his arm after the rigors of a long season in which he made 66 appearances and threw 69 innings.
Matsuzaka and Okajima went through major league life together and learned valuable lessons.
Matsuzaka experienced how difficult major league hitters are compared with Japanese hitters, while Okajima had a fervent resolve that allowed him to be extremely tough at some of the most critical moments in a close game. More often than not, Okajima, who totaled 27 holds and five saves, successfully shut the door in the late innings to set up Papelbon.
While Matsuzaka is considered a national hero in Japan, Okajima flew under the radar. Japanese media said Matsuzaka dreamed of pitching in the majors, but that was not the case with Okajima; his decision to sign with the Red Sox was strictly business. The Red Sox signed him to a two-year deal with an option for a third season, a deal that now seems like a bargain.
Matsuzaka recorded 201 strikeouts and walked 80 in 204 2/3 innings. He was 10-6 with a 3.84 ERA in the first half, but 5-6 with a 5.19 ERA in the second half. He excelled in June with a 2-2 record and a 1.59 ERA, but was shot down in September when he was 2-1 but with a 7.62 ERA.
Matsuzaka seemed rejuvenated in the postseason, particularly in a Game 3 Series win over the Rockies when he pitched 5 1/3 innings and allowed two runs. In that game, Matsuzaka stroked a two-run single in a six-run third inning and also made an excellent fielding play to trap former Seibu Lions teammate Kaz Matsui between second and third base for a critical out.
”I’ve always enjoyed hitting,” said Matsuzaka. “It’s a part of the game I miss the most being in the American League.”
Even as Matsuzaka struggled in spurts, he always seemed to bounce back. Farrell constantly changed his workouts between starts to find the right mix to prepare for a game.
In Japan, he pitched once a week in a six-man rotation. But with the Red Sox, he had to get used to pitching on one fewer day’s rest and in a five-man rotation. He also had to adapt to new baseballs, which felt different than the ones used in Japan, and new pitching mounds. He carried the burden of a country watching him so closely. He was the most important pitcher to come out of Japan since Hideo Nomo, who spent the 2001 season in Boston.
”The stuff this kid had to overcome was amazing to me,” Varitek said. “He couldn’t just focus on pitching. There were so many things he had to deal with from media in two countries, to the language, to the pressure that was on him. Next year, we’re going to see quite a pitcher. I really believe that.”
The arrival of Matsuzaka and Okajima will likely pave the way for more Japanese players in the majors and Boston in particular. According to the Japanese media, both players enjoyed Boston. They especially enjoyed being a part of a World Series championship.
”This is what I dreamed about,” said Matsuzaka.