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BIG IN JAPAN
Matsuzaka Daisuke

Matsuzaka DaisukeLast year at this time, Matsuzaka Daisuke was sitting in a Yokohama High School classroom, a baseball-playing high school senior dealing with things like homework, baseball practice and getting ready for the upcoming national high school baseball tournament at Koshien Stadium.

Little did he know at the time that his performance in last year' summer tournament throwing 250 pitches during a 17-inning complete game victory against perennial high school power P.L. Gakuen of Osaka, coupled with a storybook encore of pitching a no-hitter in the Koshien final to give Yokohama High the title would thrust the soft-spoken high school senior into the media spotlight and put him at the top of the wish list for all of Japan's pro baseball teams.

Despite stating that he wanted to play for his hometown team, the Yokohama BayStars, the Seibu Lions won first pick in the draft lottery last year. It was no surprise that the Lions picked Matsuzaka. Weeks of negotiations followed, with almost nightly reports on sports programs showing a school-uniformed Matsuzaka meeting with the tailor-suited Lions officials. Finally, Lions manager Higashio Osamu, himself a pitcher in his playing days, presented Matsuzaka with the game ball with which Higashio had won his 200th pro game, and with that gesture (and a hefty contract) Matsuzaka joined the Lions.

Whether it's his boyish good looks, his unflappable nature on the mound or his close-to-100 mph fastball, Matsuzaka appeals to many fans at many different levels. For example, women who would not normally be baseball fans have shown an affinity for Matsuzaka which rivals that of Orix Blue Wave outfielder and veteran baseball heartthrob, Suzuki Ichiro. Lions spring training this year was a case in point, with many female fans literally chasing Matsuzaka from the team hotel to the practice field and back again. At one point, the rest of the Lions pitching staff, led by veteran Tomori Denney, assembled a mock "Secret Service" ring of protection around Matsuzaka to escort him from his throng of fans.

When the Lions played their first game at the newly-renovated Seibu Dome against the Yomiuri Giants in a pre-season matchup, Matsuzaka got the call to start the game. While the Giants won the game, Matsuzaka looked sharp.

When it counted - when Matsuzaka made his first regular season start at the Tokyo Dome against the Nippon Ham Fighters - Matsuzaka ignored the hoopla and pitched a solid game to contribute to a 5-2 Lions win.

Matsuzaka's performance with the Lions to date has lived up to the team's expectations. Although he has three wins and two losses as of deadline, Matsuzaka's earned run average (ERA) is at a phenomenal 1.61, second in the Pacific League. Both of Matsuzaka's wins have come in complete games, and one was a complete game shutout. One of the losses he suffered earlier this year was a close game against the Chiba Lotte Marines, where he was out-dueled by veteran pitcher Kuroki Tomohiro in Chiba Lotte's 2-0 win.

Rookie of the year material? Barring any disastrous outings for the rest of the season, they may as well engrave the Pacific League trophy right now.

Larry Cafie

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