2/19/2014 5:42 P.M. ET
Media glare dimmed, Dice-K goes about business
By Anthony DiComo / MLB.com
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Three Japanese reporters stood quietly on a back field at the Mets' complex earlier this week, watching right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka participate in fielding drills for the first time this spring. That number climbed to five when Matsuzaka climbed atop a mound to throw a routine bullpen session.
And that was it. The crowd never grew. Matsuzaka finished his work. The reporters dissipated as inconspicuously as they had arrived. At least one of them skipped town a few hours later.
Nothing to see here.
This was not Fort Myers, where dozens of Japanese media members covered Matsuzaka's every move when he was with the Red Sox. Back then he was a one-man big top, his Q-rating at least as high as that of countrymen and current media attractions Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish. Probably higher.
But here and now, in Mets camp on a Minor League deal, Matsuzaka is just another aging veteran trying to make a team.
"That first year was a little overwhelming," Matsuzaka said through his interpreter. "It's pretty quiet now."
The time he used to spend giving two daily news conferences -- one in Japanese, one in English -- he now can invest in other pursuits. And there is plenty of investing for Matsuzaka to do. In a competition for fifth starter that also includes Jenrry Mejia, John Lannan, Rafael Montero and Jacob deGrom, Matsuzaka has five-plus weeks to prove he is the best of the bunch.
That process has already drawn rave reviews from manager Terry Collins, who called Matsuzaka's first bullpen session this week "absolutely electric," adding, "He did things some of these guys aren't even close to doing yet -- backdoor breaking balls, using his split and trying to throw it inside."
Catcher Taylor Teagarden, who caught Matsuzaka's bullpen session on Wednesday, said he is already "bringing out the whole gauntlet of pitches."
"Most guys are just trying to get ready," Collins concluded of Matsuzaka, who is renowned for an arsenal that includes at least seven distinct offerings. "He's ready to pitch. If we had to play tomorrow, he'd be on the mound, because he's ready to give you innings."
That's no coincidence. Feeling strong and fully healthy for the first time in years, Matsuzaka began his offseason workout program in mid-October, weeks earlier than usual. He believes he was unprepared last spring with the Indians, still feeling the effects of his 2011 Tommy John surgery. It was not until late in the summer -- attention, Matt Harvey: more than two full years removed from surgery -- that he finally felt whole again.
Looking back, it all clicked just in time. After signing Matsuzaka to plug a mid-August hole in the rotation, the Mets nearly cut him after three tough starts. But he rebounded to go 3-0 with a 1.37 ERA over his final four outings and, due in part to a budding relationship with pitching coach Dan Warthen, looked to re-sign with the Mets on a non-guaranteed Minor League deal.
He also began reshaping himself, pushing his body while tweaking his mechanics. Coming off the 2011 surgery, he altered his throwing motion to take stress off his elbow, but he has been working to re-establish his mechanics from his seven wildly successful seasons with Japan's Seibu Lions. His interpreter, Jeff Cutler, regularly carries a video camera and a tripod, which he uses to film his bullpen sessions. The pitcher later reviews that tape to make sure his motion stays sound.
Said Matsuzaka: "I'm in the process of getting back to the pitcher I think I can be."
It is a process that these days includes few distractions. Though a few Japanese reporters have stuck around to track Matsuzaka's progress, gone are the formal daily news conferences. Warthen can typically find his pitcher sitting uninterrupted at his locker in a quiet corner of the clubhouse.
Three hours away, in Tampa, Tanaka spends his days contending with the international media. Darvish, who is training with the Rangers in Arizona, recently came under fire for a casual joke that took on a life of its own.
Matsuzaka has no such worries. It's easy living here in Port St. Lucie. He works. He goes home. He tries to win a spot in the rotation.
"Japanese people talk about how crazy it was at his first training camp away from the Seibu Lions," said Hideki Okuda, a reporter who has covered Matsuzaka's career for the Japanese newspaper Sports Nippon. "So many people followed him. He experienced a lot of different crazy stuff."
Now it's only baseball, which is just fine by him.