Red Sox, A's to christen 2008 season in Japan

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

TOKYO -- Terry Francona knows how Daisuke Matsuzaka must be feeling when thousands of fans go wild for him in his native land.

Well, sort of.

The Red Sox manager is, after all, the pride of New Brighton, Pa. When he goes back there for a banquet, the crowd goes wild.

"I know how I feel," Francona said. "It's 6,000 people and you're returning home [to] people that you went to high school with. It's a big deal. Well, he's coming back to a country."

Nowhere is Matsuzaka more likely to sense his popularity in Japan after his first season away from his homeland than in Tokyo Dome today. He is scheduled to pitch against Oakland in the first game of the major league season in a stadium where he made his impressive pro debut nine years earlier.

"I've heard stories about how loud it gets in this place," Boston pitcher Clay Buchholz said. "I'm looking forward to it."

First baseman Kevin Youkilis had a simpler description: "Dice-K Mania."

Matsuzaka is a big reason major league baseball insisted on Boston making the trip. He was brilliant in eight seasons with Seibu, then signed a $52 million contract with the Red Sox after they bid $51.1 million for the right to negotiate with him.

He had a successful first season in a strange country -- 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA and a win in Game 3 of the World Series sweep over Colorado.

It's Major League Baseball's third season-opening trip to Japan.

The Red Sox and Athletics will also play Wednesday. In today's opener, Matsuzaka faces Joe Blanton.

"After I went to the U.S., I thought that perhaps one day I'd have the opportunity to pitch a game here in Japan, but I certainly didn't expect it to happen here in the second year," Matsuzaka said through a translator.

"When we found out that we most likely would be coming to Japan part way through last season, at that point I very strongly felt that I'd like to come back here as a World Series champion."

While he is the big draw -- Oakland has no Japanese-born players -- the Athletics let it be known that there are two major league teams visiting this baseball-mad nation.

"They are just peers of ours," Oakland closer Huston Street said. "We're definitely not intimidated. We came over here and we expect to win. To have the World Series champions here is nice for the series, but we want to win."

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