PORT ST. LUCIE, FLORIDA – Under a cloudless sky the color of his old powder-blue Seibu Lions uniform, Daisuke Matsuzaka and his fellow New York Mets pitchers are being put through their spring training paces here.
This day, the hurlers are broken into five groups, each set working on a different fundamental aspect of their position: fielding bunts, pick-off moves, covering home plate and so on.
After 10 minutes, a Mets coach yells “Change ‘em up!” and the pitchers rotate to the next station.
Meanwhile, on fenced-off paths, fans and media trail after certain ballplayers in large numbers.
MAS, though, is Matsuzaka’s lone stalker du jour.
The nihonjin hordes — and herds of curious North Americans — that oggled Matsuzaka’s every movement in past spring camps are conspicuous by their absence.
They are probably in Tampa at the New York Yankees training site scurrying about like lemmings-to-the-sea in pursuit of flavor-of-the-year Masahiro Tanaka.
That’s how it goes when you’re presently scuffling for a big league spot three years removed from Tommy John surgery, as 33-year old Daisuke is.
Not that Matsuzaka gives a hoot.
“All the attention never affected me one way or the other,” Daisuke told MAS through his interpreter.
“It didn’t bother me before when everyone was following me and I don’t mind that no one is now.”
Matsuzaka is content, then, to toil in relative anonymity as he seeks to take care of unfinished business.
“I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done so far in the major leagues,” he explained. “I want to accomplish a lot more.”
Dice-K, as Matsuzaka is known in North America, feels he is finally nearing complete recovery from the TJ surgery he underwent in 2011, which involved replacing a damaged ligament in his pitching elbow with a healthy tendon from another part of his body.
“My shoulder, elbow and entire body feel better and stronger than in any of the spring trainings I’ve been through since several years before my Tommy John operation,” Matsuzaka revealed to MAS.
Thus, Daisuke is hoping for the kind of success he enjoyed with Boston in 2008 during his second big league season when he compiled a phenomenal 18-3 record (most wins by a Japanese pitcher in MLB) with an ERA of 2.90.
Matsuzaka, of course, had gone on to the majors — and a megabucks BoSox contract — amid much fanfare after a spectacular NPB career with Seibu.
But after that boffo Beantown soph year, things began to unravel for Matsuzaka.
A series of injuries and various ailments over the next three seasons limited his effectiveness and eventually necessitated his Tommy John surgery in ’11.
After failing to turn things around for Boston in 2012, Daisuke became a free agent and last year inked a minor league contract with Cleveland.
He then was shipped out to Triple-A to regain his form.
At that point, a lot of established big leaguers would have protested thusly: “Harumph, I ain’t goin’ back to the minors after all I’ve accomplished!”
“It’s not something that you want to happen,” Daisuke said. “But it happened and I had to accept it and it played a part in where I am now.”
Last August, though, Matsuzaka asked for and got his Cleveland release and hooked on with the New York Mets.
The presence of Mets manager Terry Collins, former Orix Buffaloes skipper, was a factor in his decision.
“He has experience and knowledge of the Japanese game,” Daisuke explained, “and he accepts the Japanese game.”
After starting 0-3 for New York, Daisuke finished strong, winning three in a row with a miniscule 1.37 ERA.
“My tempo (not taking so long between pitches) and location improved,” said Matsuzaka of his turnaround, “and it took a while to work out the pitch-calling — what I like to throw in different situations.”
“He beat some good teams who were in playoff contention,” said Bob Geren, Mets bench coach.
“We were impressed with that, so we signed him back.”
Matsuzaka still sees himself as a power pitcher, like his boyhood idol Nolan Ryan, he of the fastball you could hear, but not see and a curveball that turned batters’ legs to jelly.
No switch in his modus operandi as a concession to Father Time.
“I haven’t changed my basic pitching style at all,” stated Matsuzaka, who features a high velocity fastball, slider, split-finger pitch and cutter.
“I still have the same pitches, I just use them a little differently.”
But some tweaking of his delivery HAS been in order
“I’ve made small changes to my form and mechanics — stuff like putting my foot more snug to the rubber so when I push off I get more torque and squaring up in my delivery,” Matsuzaka said.
Matsuzaka has had a solid spring so far, racking up 17 strikeouts in 18⅔ innings while allowing eight earned runs.
“He came in last season and finished as the fifth guy in our starting rotation,” said Geren, “and he certainly hasn’t done anything to lose it at this point.”
Always a big topic of discussion is whether possible overuse of Daisuke as a high schooler, NPB ace and in the World Baseball Classic somehow contributed to his physical travails and lack of huge success over the last five seasons.
Not an issue, says Matsuzaka.
“I don’t think what I’ve done in the past is a mistake,” he offered, “nor do I think it will affect me going forward.”
He may be right.
Tommy John surgery is now almost commonplace and no longer considered an act of desperation.
Many pitchers, in fact, elect to have it done to make their arms even stronger.
With pitchers actually improving in their late 30s, even 40s (see the Mets’ Bartolo Colon), Daisuke likes where he’s at now.
As he seeks a return to his dominating form of old, Daisuke Matsuzaka might also come to discover what Thoreau meant when he said: “Sometimes solitude is the best companion.”
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