First pitch: Fitting end to Matsuzaka's time with Sox

First pitch: Fitting end to Matsuzaka's time with Sox
October 3, 2012, 4:43 pm
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NEW YORK -- It began, six years ago, with promise and mystique.

It will end, Wednesday night, in disappointment and indifference.

The Daisuke Matsuzaka Era, it turns out, was not so much as era as much as it was six seasons of mixed results, nagging injuries and confounding cultural differences.

There were occasional highs, but mostly, little beyond the ordinary. And the last thing anyone expected was that Matsuzaka would be ordinary.

He averaged just over eight wins per season, and the last few years, seemed to spend more time on the disabled list than he did on the mound.

Perhaps expectations were too high in the first place. But when the Sox won the bidding for Matsuzaka, then signed him to a six-year deal, there was every expectation that they had landed a surpremely talented pitcher.

His legend began from his high school career, when he became something of a national hero, and grew with his dominant performance on the international stage.

At 26, it seemed the Red Sox were getting a premier pitcher just entering his prime.

Even his signing took on the look of a Hollywood blockbuster, with the Red Sox engaging in some high-stakes, hardball negotiations with the pitcher's agent, Scott Boras.

It took an ultimatum on the part of the Sox -- and John Henry's idling private plane at nearby John Wayne International Airport -- to get the pitcher signed to a contract. Together with the posting bid, the Sox had spent 103 million.

It seemed like a good investment.

After all, Matsuzaka was said to have an almost limitless supply of pitches -- including one, the "gyroball,'' which may or may not have actually existed -- and potential star quality. A small army of reporters followed Matsuzaka to Boston and his games became must-see events in his native Japan.

From the beginning, there was reason for optimism. Matsuzaka pitched seven innings in his major league debut on April 5, 2007, limiting the Kansas City Royals to a single run while striking out 10.

A star was born.

In his first season, Matsuzaka was 15-12 with 2004 23 innings and 201 strikeouts, and if the ERA was a little high (4.40), well, that was a small blemish on an otherwise auspicious introduction to the big leagues.

The following year, Matsuzaka was even better, with 18 wins and a 2.90 ERA. He allowed the fewest hits per nine innings of any American League starter and suddenly, the 103 million seemed like a brilliant investment.

Then, it seemed to go very wrong. All along, Matsuzaka seemed at odds with the Red Sox suggestions for training, conditioning, between-starts workload and general pitching philosophy.

He wanted to throw more; they wanted him to throw less. They wanted him to attack the strike zone; he wanted to avoid pitching to contact.

A glut of injuries arose -- shoulder weakness, lat strains, muscle pulls -- and a divide continued over where he would spend his off-seasons.

After his second season in Boston, he never again experienced the same level of success. Following the first two seasons in which he averaged 16.5 wins, he never again reached double figures in victories.

In fact, he seldom pitched, period. After averaging 30 starts in his first two seasons, he combined to make 30 starts in 2008, 2009, 2011 and this year.

What went wrong? Even now, with the benefit of hindsight, it's difficult to say. Culturally and otherwise, Matsuzaka never seemed to make the adjustment to the U.S. and Major League Baseball.

He remained distant from his teammates, unwilling or unable to communicate in anything other than his native language. He clung, stubbornly at times, to training methods that seemed ill-suited for MLB. And six years after his arrival, there remain questions about whether elite Japanese pitchers can succeed long-term here.

Tonight, he takes the mound for what is almost certainly his last appearance in a Red Sox uniform. It will be in a game with absolutely no consequence for the Sox, so it is perhaps sadly fitting that Matsuzaka be the starter.

The final game of a season in which the Sox fell ridiculously short of expectations will be started by a pitcher who seldom came close to realizing his own expectations -- and those of the team which invested so much in him.