On the day before the major league opener, Oakland pitcher Joe Blanton was just trying not to get caught up in the hype surrounding Daisuke Matsuzaka.
On Tuesday he’ll be thrust right into the middle of it as “Dice-K” mania promises to be in full effect when Matsuzaka takes the mound as the Opening Day starter when the Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s kickoff the 2008 MLB season on Tuesday at Tokyo Dome.
“I am pitching against him but I’m personally not facing him,” Blanton said. “That’s the hitters. He is a great pitcher and I’m going to have to bring my best game to be able to compete against him and that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
In the Red Sox dugout, manager Terry Francona has prepared his team to defend their 2007 World Series title the best way that he knows how. Now he’s just hoping that everybody is ready to play.
“That’s the one thing that every manager struggles with and the reason he has some anxiety before every Opening Day,” Francona said. “You always hope that everybody is ready to play.
“But really what it comes down to, almost every night, is if you get good pitching, your team will look like they’re ready. If Daisuke goes out there and gives us six or seven good innings, we’re going to look like we’re ready.”
Both teams got themselves ready for the opener with exhibitions against Japanese clubs on Saturday and Sunday. The major league teams each defeated the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers, sweeping the four-game exhibition series, in their final tuneup for the regular season.
“We have had a good spring training,” A’s manager Bob Geren said. “We’ve played extremely well. I was very happy with every phase of the game so far. We’ve pitched well, we ran the bases well and had plenty of offense. We did very good against the Japanese teams and we’re as ready as we could be.”
It’s doubtful that they have prepared for the buzz Matsuzaka will generate when he takes the mound.
Matsuzaka rose to stardom in 1998 during the National High School Invitational Tournament at Koshien after a 250-pitch 17-inning victory at age 17.
Since then his legend has only grown, from his seven season’s with the Seibu Lions to his championship year with the Red Sox last season.
Matsuzaka was 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA in his rookie season with Boston. He lost his only start against the A’s last season, a 2-0 defeat on June 6.
“I know he is one of the best pitchers in the American League,” Geren said. “We have to be on our game. He’s a very good pitcher. So is mine (Blanton) sitting next to me.”
Blanton gets the nod on Opening Day for the first time in his career. The Nashville native won 14 games for Oakland last season and is 42-34 with a 4.11 ERA in four seasons with Oakland.
“Just to be considered for that option is a great feeling,” Blanton said. “To be able to go out and throw it is going to be great. There’s going to be a lot of emotion involved. But I’m just going to go out and try to stay as calm as possible.”
During the trip both teams have tried to keep things as normal as possible in an unfamiliar environment.
“Personally I’ve pretty much gone to the ballpark and gone home,” Francona said. “We’re trying to prepare like its a normal series even if we’re not in the normal place to play it.”
The Tokyo Dome presents another challenge for both squads. It is an unfamiliar building to most of the players, who have tried to adjust to it during workouts and their exhibition games.
“What we’re trying to do is get as comfortable as we can, anywhere we play,” Francona said. “The next two games will be here. We’ll try to familiarize ourselves with every part of the ballpark. Just so something doesn’t happen during the game that surprises us.
“This ballpark is a lot like Tampa and Minnesota, so it plays like those ballparks, and we’ve played Oakland a lot. So whoever plays better will win. It won’t have anything to do with the ballpark.