NISHINOMIYA, HYOGO PREF. – Pitching in his first real game in Japan since the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka returned to the mound where he made his name on Wednesday.
At 34, Matsuzaka is a far cry from the schoolboy who rose to fame as a pitcher of speed and epic stamina at Koshien Stadium in Hyogo Prefecture. Even though his best years are behind him, Tigers fans treated Matsuzaka like one of their own in the Hawks’ 3-0 exhibition win.
No longer possessing the 155 kph heater he boasted as the Pacific League’s 1999 rookie of the year, Matsuzaka’s fastball maxed out around 146 kph in his three scoreless innings.
“It’s been a long time since I pitched (in Japan) and I was really wondering how it would go,” Matsuzaka said of his first game in Nippon Professional Baseball since 2006. “So there were some butterflies and I was unable to pitch as well as I might. But I don’t think it will be like that next time.
“The way the Hanshin fans called out my name made me happy. The mound was really easy to throw from and I was overcome by the feeling that this really is a great ballpark.”
In the majors, Matsuzaka earned a reputation as a slow worker and a nibbler, yet as if to defy those expectations, he worked a brisk first inning and stayed mostly in the zone. Matsuzaka said the fast pace was not intentional.
“I was working fast, but that’s because I was nervous at the start, as I got more relaxed I could find my own pace,” he said. “I didn’t pitch well overall, but it’s still the beginning of March, so I’m not that worried about velocity or late life. Those things will come as I get in more work.”
Matsuzaka, who underwent a form overhaul in spring training with pitching coach Yoshinori Sato, threw 57 pitches, allowing four hits and two walks, while striking out two. The pitcher said that by the third inning he was pitching more like the way he intended.
“It took a little while, but in my third inning I felt much more comfortable,” he said. “It was cold and windy, and because it was so dry, the ball was a little hard to grip, but that’s the way things are in March.”
Sato agreed that Matsuzaka was making progress.
“He was able to do things he said he wanted to do in the bullpen, although from my perspective he’s still lacking something,” Sato said. “He threw his breaking pitches for strikes, so what’s left is the command of his fastball, and that will come with work in the bullpen.”
It was here in the spring of 1998 that Matsuzaka first burst onto the scene when he pitched Yokohama High School to the national invitational championship. Five months later, he created a legend over the final three days of the national championships. Matsuzaka threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning, complete-game victory to beat Osaka powerhouse PL Gakuen 9-7 in the quarterfinals.
In the semifinals, Matsuzaka started in left field with his right arm taped up but helped at the plate and threw the ninth inning in relief as his team overcame a six-run deficit to advance to the final where he cemented his legend by throwing a no-hitter.
That legacy was in the thoughts of Hanshin’s Matt Murton, who made the final out against Matsuzaka on a 145-kph fastball.
“It was fun to face a guy who is a legend in this stadium,” said Murton. “To have a chance to face him is something I’ll never forget.
“Obviously, I’m working toward Opening Day as much as he is. But just the opportunity to compete (against him) is fun. It was a good time.”
But Matsuzaka isn’t the only thing that has changed since he last pitched here. Koshien Stadium has been remodeled inside and out.
“I barely recognized the place,” said Matsuzaka. “It was just like my first day of camp this year, I didn’t have any idea where I was supposed to go.”