Matsuzaka passes first pitching test for Red Sox

By Jeff Goldberg JUPITER, Fla., The Hartford Courant

It was brief, and it was in English. With one out in the second inning Tuesday — just the second major league inning of Daisuke Matsuzaka’s career — the Florida Marlins had runners at second and third, and Matsuzaka had a 1-and-2 count on non-roster invitee Scott Seabol. Not wanting to mess around with runners in scoring position, catcher Jason Varitek trotted to the mound to talk strategy. It was the first in-game meeting between the two — no easy feat, considering they speak different languages. Varitek kept it simple. “Can you throw the slider inside?” Varitek asked. “Can you do it?” Matsuzaka acknowledged his catcher with a purposeful nod. Seabol never got the bat off his shoulder. Inside corner, strike three. In his first game against major league hitters, Matsuzaka threw three scoreless innings in the Red Sox’s 14-6, 10-inning victory before 8,044 at Roger Dean Stadium. Matsuzaka threw 47 pitches, 31 strikes, allowing two hits and a walk while striking out three. But the simple exchange on the mound, combined with the usual signs pitchers and catchers use, made the biggest impression.

“I think that particular pitch was a typical example of how I’m going to need to work with Varitek, confirming my pitches, confirming my deliveries as we go forward,” Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. “As for the pitch itself, maybe I’m not overly happy with it, but I know it’s something I can work on and feel encouraged about.”

Manager Terry Francona had said before Matsuzaka’s first outing last Friday against Boston College that the communication issue was foremost in the minds of the coaching staff. Varitek reported no problems in that game, but there were no opportunities to test it.

On Tuesday, John Gall’s ground-rule double to right-center in the second, moving Joe Borchard to third, provided it.

“He actually understood me, which I wasn’t sure,” Varitek said. “I was going through the finger signs to make sure. He made a good pitch. We can communicate by sign language, basically. As time goes on, we’ll make sure we understand that. The important thing is he understands the fingers, and we got it done.

“I didn’t even realize that was the first time he faced major league hitters, come to think of it. Looking back at it, I didn’t see any different composure than we’ve seen all along. He handles himself very well.”

Working with a major league umpire for the first time — the Boston College game featured a college umpire — Matsuzaka threw a considerable number of off-speed pitches, trying to gauge an entirely new strike zone. The major league zone is lower than Japan’s, but wider on the outside corner, by as much as two baseballs.

Matsuzaka said three innings was far too small a sample size to reach any conclusions.

“I didn’t throw a lot of pitches that were right on the edge of the zone today, so it’s hard to make a good judgment on the strike zone,” Matsuzaka said. “I think right now I’m sort of getting used to pitching to both sides of the plate. I’m also trying to work on higher pitches, higher breaking balls. I’m very aware they may hit the ball, but I do have to go in there and do my best and throw where I can.”