Daisuke Matsuzaka was born on September 13, 1980 in Aomori, Japan. His mother chose the name Daisuke in honor of Daisuke Araki, a sensational young pitcher who made headlines during the Koshien, an annual high school baseball tournament that is Japan’s version of the Super Bowl. She was captivated by Araki during the 1980 tourney while she was pregnant.
Her choice proved prophetic, as Daisuke had a strong arm, flexible body and iron will. Legend has it that he got those from his father’s father. Although Daisuke grew up in Tokyo, he made visits to seek advice from his grandfather, who lived in the remote northern kelp-harvesting community of Wakkanai—where on a clear deal one can actually see Russia.
Daisuke excelled at every level of youth competition, both as a pitcher and as an outfielder. His dream as a boy was to play professional baseball in Japan. He set his sights even higher in 1995, when Japanese hurler Hideo Nomo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers and took American baseball by storm.
Nomo was one of the Japanese pitchers Daisuke studied as a boy. Daisuke borrowed and experimented with different styles until he came up with a basic “tall and fall” delivery that let gravity do much of the work.
Daisuke was 14 at the time, a freshman at Yokohama High School. The team’s coach, Motonori Watanabe, moved him from the outfield to the mound—a permanent switch—in his first year. Daisuke was a force of nature that Watanabe had to mold into a consistent pitcher. He set up tiny targets at home plate for him to hit. He placed a small net just a few feet from Daisuke’s release point to teach him consistent form and balance.
Whatever Watanabe threw at Daisuke, the teenager worked on until he met the challenge, and then asked for more. In a given week it was not unusual for him to throw 1,000 pitches. As he grew into his six-foot, 185-pound frame, Daisuke developed a fastball in the mid 90s, a biting slider and a changeup that screwed high school hitters into the ground.
The legend of Daisuke really began to take shape in the 1998 at the Koshien Tournament. Yokohama was one of 50 high school teams in the draw. The team won five games to earn a berth in the final. Daisuke completed and won the first three contests. In the fourth, he pitched 17 innings and threw 250 pitches in an epic 9–7 victory over PL Gakuen. His final fastball was clocked at 90 mph. The next day, in the semifinal Daisuke was summoned from the bullpen and nailed down a save.
Daisuke took the mound in the championship game one day later. He was already a national hero. What happened next was unfathomable. Daisuke hurled a no-hitter against Kyoto Seisho. The 17-year-old had outdone his namesake Koshien many times over. In four appearances over four days—and 535 pitches—Daisuke had three wins and one save. After the final out, he was mobbed by his teammates, lifted onto their shoulders and carried him off the field.
Forever after, Daisuke was known as Koshien No Moushigo, or the Heaven-Sent Child of the Koshien.
ON THE RISE
Daisuke joined the Seibu Lions of the Pacific League in 1999, after the team made him the #1 pick in the draft. The team was the defending PL champion, but the death of president Rikuo Nemoto created some disarray at the beginning of the season. That, coupled with the purchase of Mel Nieves and Rodney Pedraza by the rival Fukuoku Daiei Hawks, left the Lions looking up at the Hawks at season’s end, four games off the pace.
It was not for any lack of production from Daisuke. At age 18, he was the best pitcher on the team. He led the PL with 16 victories and showed startling grit and stamina in some tight games. Daisuke turned in a 2.60 ERA and fanned 151 batters in 180 innings, though he did walk a batter every other inning. Daisuke was named Rookie of the Year. His shining moment came in a game with the Orix Blue Wave, when he struck out six-time batting champ Ichiro Suzuki three times in their first meeting. Looking back, Daisuke says this was the moment where he knew he “belonged."
Daisuke had the benefit of learning his craft from a couple of veteran starters on the Lions, Fumiya Nishiguchi and Takashi Iishi. The team’s offense was powered by Kaz Matsui, who led the league in hits.
In 2000, American star Tony Fernandez joined the Lions. He was at the end of his career, but still managed to hit .327. Matsui had another good year, batting .322. Seibu’s pitching was stellar again. The trio of Nishiguchi, Iishi and Matsuzaka combined for a 35–19 record. Once again, however, the Lions came up a handful of wins short and finished second to the Hawks.
Daisuke continued his evolution as a pitcher. The league had a season worth of tape to study and made plenty of adjustments. Daisuke adjusted right back, finishing 14–7 albeit with a higher ERA. His biggest problem was that he still suffered from bouts of wildness. Not that anyone was complaining. His 14 wins were tops in the Pacific League again.
At the Olympics that summer, Daisuke was the talk of the Sydney. Japan fell short of winning a baseball medal, but Daisuke established himself as one of baseball's hottest commodities.
The Lions dropped to third in 2001. Osaka’s Kintetsu Buffaloes came out of nowhere to win the PL pennant, powered by Tuffy Rhodes’ record-tying 55 home runs. Once again, Daisuke led the league in wins, with 15. He was also saddled with 15 losses.
Daisuke became a first-rate innings-eater, logging 240 frames in a season that saw only one other hurler with more than 200. His 214 strikeouts were 27 more than any other pitcher in Japanese baseball. Daisuke won his first Sawamura Award, Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young. The first Pacific League hurler to win the award was Hideo Nomo, in 1990.
Daisuke’s 2002 season was a struggle from start to finish, partly because of an injury. He tweaked a groin muscle and tried to power through the pain, which aggravated a sore elbow. Daisuke never really found his stride. He threw only 78 innings.
Daisuke took some satisfaction in watching his teammates pick up the slack with an amazing performance at the plate. Alex Cabrera tied the PL home run record with 55 four-baggers, while Matsui was almost as good with 36. Nishiguchi had a nice year on the mound, as did Koji Mitsui, who went 10–2. The Lions ran away with the Pacific League pennant, but lost to Hideki Matsui and the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series. Daisuke tried to comeback for the series, but did more harm than good. He got lit up in his Game 1 start and again in relief during the clincher.
Daisuke returned to form in 2003. He showed he was healthy again by tossing 189 pitches Opening Day. He went 16–7 with a 2.83 ERA and a league-high 215 strikeouts. The Lions had a high-octane offense again, powered by Cabrera and Matsui, along with Kazuhiro Wada and American Scott McClain. They battled the Hawks all season but fell short down the stretch for a frustrating second-place finish.
Daisuke was great again in 2004, twirling five shutouts and leading the league with a 2.90 ERA. He went 10–6 during the year and took a month off to compete in the Olympics. The Japanese team had its sights set on gold and reached the medal round with a 6–1 record. But an inexplicable 1–0 loss to Australia relegated Japan to the bronze-medal game, which it won 11–2 over Canada. Daisuke was on the losing end of the Aussie debacle, though he pitched well. His teammates on the bronze-winning squad included Kosuke Fukudomo.
Back in Japan, the Lions finished second to the Hawks once again, but this time it was a cause for celebration. Japanese baseball instituted a new playoff format, giving Seibu a shot at the postseason. The Lions took full advantage by defeating the third-place Nippon Ham Fighters, and then beating the Hawks in a best-of-five encounter.
That set up a championship encounter with the Chunichi Dragons of the Central League. The series went the full seven games, with Daisuke losing Game 2 and winning Game 6 to spark a comeback from a three-games-to-two deficit. It was Seibu’s first title since 1992, and the franchise’s 12th overall—second only to the Yomiuri Giants. After the season, Daisuke faced a major league All-Star squad touring Japan. He pitched a six-hit complete game, winning 5–1.
Seibu failed to defend its championship in 2005. Although Wada won the batting championship and the starters held their own, the Lions could not outhit their opponents and finished with a losing record for the first time since Daisuke joined the club. For his part, he went 14–13 with a sparkling 2.30 ERA and a league-high 226 strikeouts. Daisuke struck out his 1,000th batter during the year, reaching that plateau in fewer innings than any player in Japanese history. He issued only 49 walks, putting to rest forever any doubt that he was a complete pitcher.
MAKING HIS MARK
Daisuke entered the 2006 season with an eye on the American major leagues. In his eighth season with the Lions, he was eligible to leave in 2007. In what amounted to a season-long audition, Daisuke was magnificent. First, he dominated the competition in the World Baseball Classic, winning all three of his starts and taking home MVP honors as Japan won the tournament. He pitched one game in Tokyo and two in California, thriving under the microscope of American fans and wowing the scouts trying to estimate his value.
Daisuke continued rolling during the PL regular season. He went 17–5 and punched out 200 batters in 186 innings. His 2.13 ERA was the best of his career, and he walked just 34 batters. Daisukecompleted 13 of his 25 starts. The Lions finished a game out of first place. They faced their old nemesis, the Hawks, in the opening round of the playoffs. Daisuke twirled a 1–0 six-hit shutout in the opener, but the Lions dropped the next two games in the best of three series.
In November, the Lions gave Daisuke permission to participate in the posting process, whereby major league teams were invited to submit sealed bids. The high bidder earned the right to negotiate exclusively with Daisuke. The Red Sox won the sweepstakes and signed Daisuke to a $52 million deal covering six years. Boston ponied up another $51 million for the rights to negotiate with him. Other teams in the hunt were the two New York teams and the Texas Rangers.
Daisuke was the talk of baseball as the 2007 season began. The secret to his success, it was said, was his mysterious Gyroball, which rotated sideways, like a football. It was basically a high-in-the-zone cutter, similar to the one Mariano Rivera threw.
Daisuke’s first start came against the Kansas City Royals on April 5th. Daisuke won his debut 4–1 and fanned 10 batters in the process. In his first Fenway start, Daisuke lost 3–0 to Ichiro and his national team batterymate Kenji Johjima. He reached double-digit Ks again in his third start, becoming the first pitcher to do so since Fernando Valenzuela.
Despite having to work hitters he had only seen on TV—and given the hoopla that surrounded him and the unfamiliar surroundings—Daisuke was remarkably consistent. He gave up two earned runs or fewer in 17 of his 32 starts. He was 10–6 at the All-Star break and finished 15–12, due in part to a lack of run support in the second half. His ERA for the year was 4.40, and he set a new strikeout record for Red Sox rookies with 201.
The Red Sox edged the Yankees in the AL East and swept the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the Division Series. Daisuke started Game 2 for Boston and got cuffed around, but the Red Sox pulled out the win. It came courtesy of a three-run walk-off homer by Manny Ramirez off Francisco Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth.
Daisuke started Game 3 of the ALCS against the Cleveland Indians and dropped a 4–2 decision to Jake Westbrook. The loss put the Red Sox down a game, but they came back to win the pennant in seven. Daisuke started the clincher. He was untouchable over the first three innings as Boston pounded Westbrook and took a 3–0 lead. Daisuke exited after five innings with a 3–2 lead, and the Bosox pen finished off Cleveland in what was ultimately an 11–2 victory.
The Red Sox made it easy for Daisuke again in the World Series. He started Game 3 against the Colorado Rockies, and his teammates put up a six spot in the third inning against Josh Fogg. Daisuke accounted for two of those runs with a single—his first hit as a major leaguer. He pitched into the fifth, striking out five and allowing a pair of earned runs. Boston won 10–5, making Daisuke the first Japanese pitcher to start and win a World Series game. Boston then took Game 4 one night later behind Jon Lester for a sweep.
The Red Sox entered 2008 as prohibitive favorites to win the AL East. Those predictions were based largely on the team's pitching superiority. For the first time in a long time, the Yankees were never much of a factor. But the Tampa Bay Rays started like a house afire, and kept winning through the summer despite key injuries.
Boston survived injuries, too—and the departure of Ramirez—thanks largely to Daisuke, who was magnificent in his second season. Counted on for 15 wins when the year started, he surpassed that total in mid-August and was 18–2 with a week to go. His only losses were to the St. Louis Cardinals in June and the Angels in July. Had he not missed a couple of starts with an injury in June, he would have been a lock for 20 wins. Even at that, he will garner plenty of support in the Cy Young Award voting. In a long and complicated season in Beantown, Daisuke made winning simple.
With all due respect to Nomo, Daisuke may have already proven himself as the best Japanese pitching import. Red Sox fans would certainly agree. In two years, he has shown he is more than a one-trick pony. The Gyroball may be Daisuke's signature pitch, but he has become an ace in every sense of the word.
DAISUKE THE PITCHER
Daisuke is a world-class athlete with a fanatical dedication to his craft. He is versatile, durable, and extremely competitive. He had nothing to prove when he joined the Red Sox. He had exhibited his talent on every level, under intense pressure, against the highest caliber of opponent.
That being said, Daisuke was carrying the battle flag for Japanese pitchers, who had a reputation for starting strong in the majors and then fizzling out. They came with a “gimmick” tag, and Daisuke was no exception—thanks to the fuss made about his Gyroball.
Using fastballs and changeups as his principle weapons, he found his rhythm and became a dominant pitcher. He changed speeds and locations with a mastery rarely seen in the majors, and his 2008 record was the proof in the pudding.
Daisuke is most successful when throwing his heater less than half the time. He has three fastballs—a two-seamer, four-seamer and cutter that range from 88 mph up to 97 mph. His slider is above average, and his change-up is a terrific out pitch when he’s ahead in the count. He can also throw the shuuto—the sinker that is bread and butter for many Japanese hurlers. The shuuto breaks down and in on righties, while the Gyroball breaks down and away.
Daisuke uses a drop-and-drive delivery that is smooth and efficient. He is not afraid to pitch up in the zone, and is better than many expected pitching from the stretch.
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