It is ironic that Daisuke Matsuzaka will probably start the final game of this unhappy Red Sox season. Since the Sox will not re-sign him and it is unlikely that any other club will pick him up, it will be an unhappy ending to his career in American baseball.
Long before the team signed him prior to the 07 season, Matsuzaka was already a legend. While still in high school in Yokohama in 1998, he had led his school to the National Championship with some incredible efforts in the playoffs, called Summer Koskien. In the quarterfinal, he threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning win the day after a complete-game shutout with 148. In the final, he tossed a no-hitter. American scouts were starting to notice.
Despite being recruited by the Rockies and Diamondbacks, Daisuke elected to stay at home and play for the Seibu Lions. In an 8-year career (1999-2006), he captured many awards-Rookie of the Year, three Best Nine and seven Gold Gloves. He led the league in strikeouts 5 times, in wins 3 times and in ERA twice. Matsuzaka was also a five-time all-star selection in Nippon Professional Baseball and was MVP in the 04 contest.
In the fall of 06, the Red Sox outbid the Rangers, Mets and Yankees by signing him to a six-year contract of over $51 million- three times the payroll of the entire Lions team. He also received a $2 million signing bonus.
In his first two years in Boston, Daisuke seemed on the way to fulfilling his promise. In 07, he posted a 15-12 record in 32 starts. The Sox won a World Series, but his postseason performance was erratic. After two mediocre starts, he recovered to emerge as the winning pitcher in the seventh game of the ALCS over Cleveland and in the third game of the World Series over Colorado. Matsuzaka was now a genuine hero in Boston, but his comments, always through an interpreter, were normally rather bland and seemed to reflect some shyness.
Daisuke’s top season was in 08, as he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. However, he led the AL with 94 walks and was constantly forced to wiggle out of jams. Eight times, for example, he walked 5 or more batters in a game. In the first ALCS contest at Tampa Bay, he no-hit the Rays for 7 innings and got the victory, his top postseason performance. At home in game 5, however, Matsuzaka was ineffective. The Sox lost to the Rays in seven.
Since 2008, his career has faded. In 09, he decided to pitch in the World Baseball Classic, and reported to the Sox only 12 games before Opening Day. It seemed to affect his performance, as he started only 12 times and finished with a 4-6 mark and 5.76 ERA. He was also on and off the DL. Stories appeared about injuries, such as a hip joint problem revealed in an interview with Japanese TV after the season. In the same interview, he stated that pitching in the Classic had taken a toll on him.
Before the 2010 campaign, Daisuke did something US athletes seldom do-he apologized to the fans for his 09 performance. “I am going to redeem what I lost in 2009. With my health back, I am confident and determined to produce this year” he stated. It never happened. In his next three seasons with the Sox, his record was 13-15, with his ERA and hits to innings pitched ratio worsening each year. Because of Tommy John surgery, he has been limited to 18 starts in 2011 and 2012 and spent time in the minors. This season, he has an ERA of nearly 8 and looks nothing like the hurler the Sox signed with so much hope 6 years ago.
It has been said that Daisuke never fit in the USA-deep down, he was homesick. That may be an oversimplification, but he did not seem to particularly enjoy even his good times in Boston, unlike, for example, an Ichiro in Seattle.
Daisuke is only 32 years old. Could he return to Japan and become a hero again? It seems unlikely, but it is possible. Maybe he should have never left.