Josh Beckett was dealing yesterday. That's what really stands out when I look back over the game as a whole, though the offensive explosion that made the final score look like something from an NFL game was also impressive. Granted, the Red Sox lineup was feasting on the soft underbelly of the snow-stymied Mariners staff, while Mariners hitters had clearly suffered for lack of seeing live pitching, but Beckett's performance was brilliant and would have been against anybody. After 7 innings, he left with just 84 pitches on his arm--were it not for the piling on of runs, he could have pitched a complete game easily.
Most encouraging from Joshie was the mix of pitches, which is already markedly different from last year, as well as the sharp contrasts between pitches--most curveballs were clocked on the Fenway gun in the high 70's, changeups in the low 80's and fastballs at 95, with Beckett's typical consistency there. I've dogged him hard about his apparent obstinacy when it comes to pitch selection and changing speeds, but he has clearly done a substantial amount of work toward mastering both concepts and is showing it in just his second start of the regular season. He may still rub me the wrong way personally for reasons I might never fully pinpoint--some guys just aren't "your guy"--but all the credit where credit is due there. I hope he keeps it up.
In particular his curveball was looking wicked yesterday--he was throwing it consistently for strikes. While watching the replay of the game on NESN last night I got to see one closer up that he threw Ichiro during Ichiro's first at-bat (and first of three strikeouts against Beckett) and it had a 12-6 break to pick up the outside corner that would make Barry Zito cry. It was clear Beckett was not only well-prepared in terms of his overall approach to pitching but that he also had his best stuff yesterday. All the pitches were working for him, and he was a crisp, efficient joy to watch, even from as far away as Right Field Box 87, which is where we were for the game.
(Speaking of Barry Zito, Box 87 is right next to the visitor's bullpen, so I got to see some pitchers warming up up close again finally, something I've been pining to do ever since I watched Barry Zito warm up on July 6, 2004 and heard him make the ball hum through the air. But none of the Mariners pitchers were any more impressive to me than to Red Sox batters out on the field--none of them made the ball hum and pop the way Zito had. I guess that's what makes him Barry Zito.)
JD Drew got his first home run, a bona-fide blast to straightaway center that impressed the Fenway crowd. Sam says his cheeks look like butt cheeks, but I don't see it. So far I'm fairly indifferent to him. The homer helped his cause, but I still think it's probably unnecessary and a little bit tasteless for him to be wearing No. 7 in right field. Nobody's yet worn No. 5 or 45 for the Sox despite the circumstances under which Nomar and Pedro left; why Trot hasn't warranted similar respect I can't fathom, particularly since he was a Red Sox lifer. (I just want to make clear here that I don't blame Drew for this--I think it was the team's decision, not his--but fair or not, it's been hard for me to warm to him just the same.)
Coco Crisp and Jason Varitek both looked better at the plate, especially Tek, who was 3 for 4 with a walk, two singles and an RBI double. As in Joshie's last start, actually, the lineup started doing their daisy-chaining thing at the plate and fired up the merry-go-round on Weaver early. This lineup lacks the mega-potency of the 2003 / 2004 teams--we may not see that level of offensive output again, or at least not soon--but it's definitely one that can double you to death, particularly one through six. Even better, the one-through-six in that lineup yesterday--Lugo, Youkilis, Ortiz, Ramirez, Drew, and Lowell--becomes a more fearsome prospect at the plate with another of their number on base ahead of them.
I can only imagine what it must have felt like for Weaver yesterday, waiting in the dugout through the top of each inning. He had to know from the very beginning that he was going to be a dud; most pitchers seem to indicate after a bad outing that it was clear their pitches weren't working as early as the pre-game bullpen session. Weaver's issue seemed to be accuracy; he was trying to paint the corners but missed his spots, and a few borderline calls in the first inning seemed to lead him to focus more on grooving pitches down the middle for the strike call, which of course would encounter a Red Sox bat before they had the chance to be judged.
And then to finally beat a retreat to the dugout after an interminable bottom of the first that made the whole game seem longer, since the fourth inning came when my subconscious told me it should have been the seventh, only to see Beckett finish off the Seattle side in about five minutes--I can only imagine the feeling, trudging back out to the mound again.
Which is not to say I didn't cheer Weaver's every bad pitch. But still. Abstractly I can feel for the guy.
Anyway, I really hate to say this because it's really not fair to the other players on the team, but what stuck out to me most about the atmosphere at the ballpark yesterday, aside from a crowd that was very early both arriving to the park and leaving, was the palpable evidence of Daisuke Mania in the area.
Take, for example, the Dunkin' Donuts billboard behind the bleachers--it's now written in Japanese. Avaya, too, has its name in Japanese characters below the English alphabet logo on the backstop. Sushi snack bars are popping up around the park, and they, too, are advertising their menus in Japanese.
I've heard conflicting reports on how many Japanese fans will be showing up tonight--some people think there will be hordes of them in attendance, others (including any official news source I can find although admittedly I haven't had time to search much) don't predict a deluge except of Japanese media members and a hyped-up audience overseas watching on TV. I will be fascinated to see what the crowd looks like tonight. It's clear the Sox are making an honest effort to roll out the red carpet for any new Japanese fans that might come by this season. I personally think it could be a great thing for the city of Boston, if it draws us out of our general xenophobia and into the international spotlight. One concession I will make to New York, and by extension the New York Yankees--they are a far more cosmopolitan and international city, and they are clearly way ahead of us in the Japanese market. I'm hoping our foray into it is as successful as theirs with Matsui.
We're at least making up for lost time in terms of enthusiasm. Matsuzaka's introduction yesterday earned by far the loudest response from the home crowd during the Opening Ceremonies. For perhaps the first time since I've been following him, anyway, Daisuke looked taken aback--he's pitched professionally before, pitched in the cold before, pitched in front of passionate fans before, but there's still bound to be some culture shock when it comes to the fans at Fenway. There are American ballplayers who could have told him about that. It looked like his mind was racing as he reacted to the Fenway crowd bathing him in its highest-intensity roar right out of the gate. If his expression on the Jumbo-Tron above the center field bleachers was any indication, he was back on his heels a bit.
Hopefully that instance yesterday was enough acclimation to the kind of intensity he can expect tonight. Because I personally can't recall a game this hotly anticipated in Boston since 2004, and honestly, I've been just plain trying not to think about tonight's game at all if I can help it (though obviously I'm failing) because otherwise, I will simply not function today. That's what thoughts like "The first batter he faces at Fenway Park is going to be Ichiro!!" do to you.
And, of course, how can one resist articles like this Times piece covering the hysteria from Boston to Seattle to Japan and back?
Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima has more of a history against Matsuzaka in Japan; he was 32 for 118 (.271) with 5 homers and 11 runs batted in. While Matsuzaka was praised for pitching seven effective innings in a 4-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals last week, Johjima called that outing typical.
If Johjima ever gave teammates a scouting report on Matsuzaka, he said through an interpreter, it would be brief.
“The first thing that I think we all have to keep in mind is pray to God,” Johjima said. “That’s what I do first.”
Still, I'm doing my best to stay focused as the clock hands strain with each second today and have managed to forget about it for stretches as long as 20 minutes at a time. I think I'm doing well.
Rest assured, though, 7:05 tonight will find me firmly ensconced in the ballpark. No way can you miss that first pitch.
P.S. Not sure why, but my Flickr images aren't showing up on this blog right now. Can't tell right now if it's a problem with Flickr or my particular computer but apologies for the appearance if you're seeing it too...