Matsuzaka ready for Classic challenge

There is little doubt that right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka has the best stuff in Japan. The only question about the 25-year-old is how long it will take him to move to the major leagues.

While he won't be going this season, the Seibu Lions' biggest star is eyeing a confrontation with major leaguers in the World Baseball Classic. Matsuzaka is aiming to take on the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and, if possible, strike him out.

"I want to face A-Rod," Matsuzaka said in an interview published in Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun. "He can field, he can run. What a great hitter.

"It would be great if I get him [strike him out]. To retire a hitter who everybody knows would be great, especially if it's in the form of a strikeout," he said.

Should Japan advance as one of two Asian teams from Tokyo's Group A, Japan will likely face the United States in Round 2.

"If we get to play the Dominican Republic, I want to confront [the St. Louis Cardinals'] Albert Pujols -- an amazing hitter," Matsuzaka said.

Matsuzaka has seen major-league batters before, in 2004. Armed with a 98 mph fastball, a solid splitter, an unbelievable slider and a changeup, he did what no Japanese pitcher had done in 20 years -- throw a complete-game victory against a team of visiting major-league All-Stars.

"The major-league season was over by then, and they [the big leaguers] didn't give the impression of being all that serious," Matsuzaka said.

"On the other hand, my desire to go to the majors was already public knowledge at the time, so I had to do well. And that was in my mind as I pitched."

That November night at the Sapporo Dome, Matsuzaka gave up a run on five hits and no walks -- a level of control rarely shown in the regular season.

"Without question, he could pitch in the major leagues," San Diego Padres manager Bruce Bochy told reporters afterward. "He has four major-league pitches. He has a good idea of what he's doing on the mound."

Jim Colborn, a former pitching coach for both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Japan's Orix BlueWave, is convinced of Matsuzaka's ability.

"He can certainly pitch in the majors," Colborn said. "He probably would not be an overwhelming power pitcher, but he would be a rotation guy who could win 15 games."

Since 2004, Matsuzaka has asked the Lions to make him available to major-league clubs through the posting system. Should Seibu continue to stonewall him, the fireballer, who is 91-55 in seven pro seasons, will be eligible for free agency in the autumn of 2007.

Until then, Matsuzaka is welcoming the opportunity the World Baseball Classic offers.

"I want this to become a tournament people will take notice of -- to the same degree they are aware of soccer's World Cup," he said. "We, as players, feel a responsibility for that, so we have to play hard.

"First of all, we have the Asian qualifying round," he said.

In three days, starting Friday, Japan will take on China, Chinese Taipei and South Korea.

"I have a sense of anxiety about them [the first-round games], that they will tough battles like we haven't seen before," Matsuzaka said. "Because the other players will feel the same, getting through won't be easy."

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.