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Tuesday, March 21, 2006
Updated: March 22, 11:17 AM ET
The next great Japanese import

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- Cheer up, fellow Americans. Our country might not have even reached the final round of the World Baseball Classic, but the best players eventually all wind up here.

Daisuke Matsuzaka
Daisuke Matsuzaka has a bright future in baseball.
That includes World Baseball Classic MVP and championship game starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, who will be pitching on a major-league mound near you in, oh, about 13 months.

"I believe that Major League Baseball is the best league in the whole world, and I would like to see what I could do in that league," Matsuzaka said after Japan beat Cuba 10-6 on Monday night. "That's what I have in my mind.''

But before George Steinbrenner starts fitting Matsuzaka for pinstripes, Ichiro has a word or two to say. "He has to go through his agent,'' the Mariners' outfielder said, pointing to himself.

That could be a lucrative position, given how Matsuzaka showcased his talents in this tournament. After averaging 13 wins a season the past seven years for the Seibu Lions, he went 3-0 in the WBC, allowing two runs and striking out 10 in 13 innings. The right-hander was 14-13 with a 2.30 ERA and 226 strikeouts in 215 innings last year for Seibu, can hit the mid-90s with his fastball, throws a nasty slider and doesn't turn 26 until late September.

Under Japanese rules, Matsuzaka isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2008 season, but his team, the Seibu Lions, could sell negotiation rights to him before then through a system known as "posting.'' Seibu would take blind bids, and the team offering the most money would receive the rights to Matsuzaka. The team then has a period in which it is allowed to negotiate a contract with the pitcher. This is how the Mariners acquired Ichiro five years ago.

The pitcher has twice asked Seibu to post him, most recently last October, but the team has declined each time. But with his free agency approaching and his intent to leave clear, the team likely will decide to post Matsuzaka after this season and receive something for him.

Matsuzaka has been famous in Japan ever since an almost inconceivable performance in the country's important Koshein high school baseball tournament, which is the equivalent of our NCAA basketball tournament. Matsuzaka threw a 250-pitch, 17-inning complete game in the semifinal and then pitched a no-hitter in the final. He threw close to 400 pitches in two days.

And here's the really amazing part: Dusty Baker wasn't his manager.

Matsuzaka also pitched for Japan in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, holding Cuba scoreless for eight innings in Athens. That made him the natural selection for starting the WBC championship game.

"Shunsuke Watanabe was also eligible to start, so that (manager Sadaharu Oh) picked me, (and) that fired me up,'' Matsuzaka said of the starting assignment. "I also knew that Watanabe would be available later in the game, so I never thought about pitch count or anything. … From the beginning I was throwing the hardest pitches possible. …

"I heard that they are really good fastball hitters, and my good pitch is my fastball. So I really wanted to try my fastball against those great hitters, and I didn't really care about location. I wanted to overpower the Cuban hitters.''

I heard that they are really good fastball hitters, and my good pitch is my fastball. So I really wanted to try my fastball against those great hitters, and I didn't really care about location. I wanted to overpower the Cuban hitters.
Daisuke Matsuzaka

He also said he was just excited to pitch in a major-league stadium, though he probably would prefer our fences be farther away. He took a 4-0 lead to the mound in the bottom of the first, but that soon became a 4-1 lead when Cuba leadoff hitter Eduardo Paret slammed a home run to left-center. Had Matsuzaka been pitching for Cuba, he not only would have been out of the game for such an offense, he probably would have been kicked off the team. Cuba manager Higinio Velez not only yanked his starter after a walk and two infield singles Monday; he starts warming up his bullpen from the very first pitch.

Fortunately, Oh is a little more tolerant, so Matsuzaka was able to remain. He held Cuba scoreless after the home run, striking out five in four innings before Oh gave him the hook.

"He might have been able to pitch some more,'' Oh said, "but today it was my decision to take him out at that moment and switch him with the other pitcher.''

After all, Matsuzaka might have thrown 400 pitches in two days in high school, but he has to get used to being babied if he's coming to the majors. And why not? He's achieved just about everything he can in Japan.

"The Olympics were the only opportunities to decide the world's No. 1 team in the past, but both times I participated in the Olympics we finished short of earning the gold medal,'' Matsuzaka said. "When I heard about the plan of the WBC, I looked at the list of the players, and I was probably the most excited in my career thinking that I might have a chance to play on the best team ever.''

Or at least the best team not represented by Donald Fehr.

Matsuzaka said he has a preferred major-league team with whom he wants to pitch, but then smiled and said it's probably best not to name it. No matter which one it is, Oh (who never got a chance to test himself in the majors) will be happy to see him go. He's the manager of the Fukuoka Hawks during the regular season, and evidently his team has faced Matsuzaka more times than he would prefer. When Matsuzaka was asked how quickly he would like to play in the majors, Oh turned to him and said, "Tell them 'soon.' ''

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," was published by Plume. It can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.