GOODYEAR, ARIZ.: Reporters covering the Indians were outnumbered 5-1 by a contingent of 20 Japanese media members, who crowded into the spring training complex to cover the big story of the day.
What was so important to bring together so many print and electronic reporters from Asia? The Indians announced early Wednesday morning that they had formally signed Daisuke Matsuzaka to a minor-league contract that included an invitation to major-league training camp.
Hardly earth-shaking news to 90 percent of the baseball world but enough to make headlines in Japan. It was no secret that the team had done a deal. But officially, it didn’t count until Matsuzaka passed a physical.
As if to validate the physical, Matsuzaka threw his first bullpen session of the spring in the cool, sunny Arizona air.
“They told me to keep it light and focus on my mechanics,” Matsuzaka said through his translator, Jeff Cutler.
At this early juncture, nobody in authority for the Tribe is keeping score of Matsuzaka’s performance level.
“I thought for a first bullpen, it was crisp,” said manager Terry Francona, who urged the club to sign Matsuzaka. “He showed some real good maturity, and I thought he looked in real good shape.”
Francona knows Matsuzaka better than anyone in camp after managing him for five years with the Boston Red Sox.
“He looked [today] like he looks when he’s healthy,” Francona said. “But it’s his first bullpen, so you don’t want to evaluate him. I remember his first spring. I felt sorry for him. Every time he gave up a hit, he had to account for it [to the media].”
“We have to be cautious in making any evaluations,” General Manager Chris Antonetti said. “The most important thing is that he’s healthy and that he goes through his spring training progressions. When he’s been healthy, Daisuke has been a good pitcher here and in Japan.”
Good health to Matsuzaka refers to his surgically repaired right elbow. He began to feel pain in the elbow in 2009 and underwent an operation to reconstruct the joint in 2011. He returned to the Red Sox last year and went 1-7 with an 8.28 ERA, a far cry from his combined numbers of 2007-2008, when he was 33-15 with a 3.72 ERA.
Matsuzaka’s departure from Japan and his arrival in Boston (for $52 million) was national news in 2007. But that was a long time ago. His mission now is to resurrect his career and try to earn a spot in the Tribe’s rotation. It won’t be easy.
Four pitchers have been anointed starters already: Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Brett Myers and Zach McAllister. Carlos Carrasco, like Matsuzaka, coming off Tommy John elbow surgery, is considered the favorite to win the fifth-and-final berth.
Beyond these five are Scott Kazmir, Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, the prodigy obtained from the Arizona Diamondbacks during the winter. David Huff might even be in the mix, though it appears that the Tribe is inclined to turn him into reliever.
“I am going into camp with no guarantees,” Matsuzaka said. “This will be my first such experience as a professional, and it’s definitely a new feeling. But they are giving me an opportunity.”
Matsuzaka said he talked to three teams when it became clear the Red Sox did not want him back.
“It came down to me wanting to pitch for an American League team, and I wanted to pitch against Boston,” he said. “I also wanted to pitch for Tito [Francona]. I met with him yesterday. Tito smiled. He brings a calm to me.”
Matsuzaka wanted to pitch against the Red Sox? Is his motivation revenge?
“Last season, when I went back to the Red Sox, [he and other players] used to talk about me coming back and pitching against them,” Matsuzaka said. “We were just having a good laugh, but now that it can be a reality, it will be a good time.”
Matsuzaka doesn’t plan to change the way he pitches, but one thing definitely will be different.
“I’ve been throwing in pain for quite awhile,” he said. “Now, it’s important for me to get used to throwing without pain. That might take some time. But without pain, I should be the pitcher I was in the past.”
When Matsuzaka returned to the mound last year, he wasn’t quite sure how his arm would react and was keenly aware of every sensation he felt, real or imagined.
“Right now, I have no concerns,” he said. “But coming back from Tommy John last year was a constant battle. People told me that I was fine, but I was trying to find out what my body could do and what condition I was in.”
Matsuzaka thinks that the uncertainty has ended and that this clarity will put him back in the big leagues to stay.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.