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Could Daisuke Matsuzaka be a hero in the shadows?

02.16.11 at 6:25 pm ET
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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Daisuke Matsuzaka is entering his fifth major league season, long removed from life as an intercontinental phenom. One can count with two hands the number of Japanese media members who are in Fort Myers to document the right-hander’s spring, and many of those journalists are biding their time until they relocate across the city to Twins camp, where middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka — the first Japanese player signed by Minnesota — will be arriving.

The spotlight is no longer glaring on the 30-year-old pitcher. In a way that is perhaps unprecedented in his Sox career, he is able to navigate through the Red Sox minor league complex while nearly — nearly – blending in.

“The thing for him that’s probably easier is every time he takes the ball now it’s not as big as an event, so he can be more of a normal baseball player,” said manager Terry Francona. “Remember that first spring, up in Sarasota, he gave up a hit, we had to about bring in the United Nations. Now he can go out and be a normal pitcher, which I think should be easier.”

Matsuzaka, in his session with the media, agreed.

Daisuke Matsuzaka finds himself enjoying a relatively normal spring training. (AP)

Of course, whether in the glare of the spotlight or not, there is still the looming question of what the pitcher is capable of doing. In 2010, he had two stints on the disabled list — one at the start of the year that stemmed from neck and back stiffness near the start of spring training, another that arose because he felt minor discomfort while warming up for a summer start — but overall, his shoulder and arm were healthier than they had been, arguably, at any point in his Red Sox career.

Now, after showing up to his last two spring trainings with some kind of injury — he was overweight and had some undisclosed leg issues following the WBC in 2009 and he had the neck stiffness in 2010 — Matsuzaka is healthy as he makes the rounds in Sox camp.

“The past two years, [I] was not 100 percent confident about [my] physical condition,” Matsuzaka said through a translator. “However, this spring training, [I feel] very good.”

Indeed, after working out in Hawaii and Japan during the offseason, the right-hander is in such good shape that the Sox are allowing him some liberties to pursue a more extensive throwing program than some of his peers. He’s been doing much more flat-ground throwing than other Sox pitchers, and in his first bullpen session of the spring on Wednesday, he was allowed to throw 45 pitches, rather than the 30 that most other members of the Sox are logging.

It was a far cry from the first bullpen session that Matsuzaka had as a Red Sox — a 103-pitch marathon session that was watched by Sox officials, owners and over 100 members of the Japanese press. Even so, it was a notable bit of compromise between the player and club. Matsuzaka feels now that he is following an American throwing program as designed by the Sox; for their part, the team is happy to give him more latitude to throw based on his physical condition.

“It’s no secret, he wants to throw more, generally, than most of the guys we’ve had because of his background. We always told him, if he could withstand that, we had no problems with that,” said Francona. “Today he threw 45 pitches. Most of our other guys threw 30. That’s because he’s in good shape. We have no problems with that. If that’s a comfort zone for him but he can handle it because he’s strong enough, I think that’s terrific.”

For now, then, Matsuzaka does not appear to have any medical issues looming over him, something that bodes well for his stated goal of besting his workload in 2007, his first year in Major League Baseball after his storied career in Japan. Yet the Sox find it difficult to know what to make of the right-hander even after their four years of experience with him.

“We’ve been all over the spectrum. We’ve pretty much touched it all,” said Francona. “We’ve seen him really good. We’ve seen him where he can’t take the ball. We’ve seen him where doesn’t throw strikes.”

In 2010, that full range was on display in a year when Matsuzaka went 9-6 in 25 starts with a 4.69 ERA. During the season, he flashed a fastball with tremendous life. The pitch regularly touched 94 mph, and for the year, his average fastball velocity (according to fangraphs.com) was 92.0 mph, the best of his career. Meanwhile, his stuff had more definition than had been the case in years.

But the results were as mixed as ever. He held opponents to a .240 batting average, but he also had the lowest strikeout rate (7.8 punchouts per nine innings) of his career.

It was the sort of season that has characterized the pitcher’s time with the Sox — a confusing mash that is difficult to make sense of. Even Matsuzaka acknowledged the uneven results of his time in Boston, while noting his hope and expectation that he will improve his results in the coming year.

“In the past four years, [I have had] a good time and a bad experience as well, all together,” Matsuzaka said through his translator. “[I] would like to use that four years of experience into a better performance this year.

“It’s been a great experience to stay in the major leagues,” he added. “[I believe] that, based on [my] experience, [I] will perform better.”

If that happens, his improvement might take place in relative obscurity in his homeland and even in Boston. The sky-high expectations that once greeted his arrival in the U.S. have been measured. He is viewed as the Sox’ fifth starter, something of an afterthought amidst the more heralded group of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett and John Lackey. (Indeed, it was that foursome that was interviewed as a group on Wednesday by former Sox starter John Smoltz.)

Four years after Matsuzaka occupied the spotlight and teammate Hideki Okajima declared his hope to be a “hero in the shadows,” it may be Matsuzaka who attempts to carry on that tradition.

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