Daisuke Matsuzaka slips under radar

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- One of the most telling examples of how popular Daisuke Matsuzaka was after helping the Boston Red Sox win a World Series in his first season was the ovation that his translator, Harvard man Masa Hoshino, received when introduced at the home opener the following spring.

Well, Hoshino is gone now, having taken a job with a company on the West Coast. The new man, Kenta Yamada, made his debut Wednesday, and while he was clearly nervous and whiffed on a few responses, he had no trouble interpreting Matsuzaka's response when asked where he was keeping Masa prisoner.

"He didn't like to be picked on by Josh [Beckett], so he ran away to San Francisco," Yamada said as Matsuzaka giggled.

Hoshino has left, and so has much of the goodwill Matsuzaka built up in his first two seasons in Boston, when he not only became the first Japanese pitcher to win a World Series game, but went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA as an encore in 2008.

The past two seasons have been a downward spiral in which Matsuzaka has been out of shape, hurt, ineffective or all of the above, the wins coming with maddening infrequency -- four in 2009, nine last season.

The Sox invested more than $100 million in Matsuzaka (including a $51 million posting fee) with the idea that by now, he would be a mainstay of the team's rotation. Instead, when future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, now a commentator for the MLB Network, lined up the team's starters for an interview, there were only four chairs. One each for Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey. Matsuzaka wasn't invited.

Manager Terry Francona, who artfully deflects the heat from his players, makes little effort to hide his frustration with Matsuzaka, an understandable if impolitic reaction.

"We've kind of been all over the spectrum," Francona said Wednesday. "We've seen him really good, we've seen him where he can't take the ball, we've seen him where he can't throw strikes."

Matsuzaka acknowledged as much Wednesday.

"In the past four years, he says he has had good times and bad years as well," Yamada said, translating. "He would like to use that four years of experience for a better performance this year."

What is the likelihood of that happening? Well, there are a few factors that suggest Matsuzaka is on the upswing.

For one, he didn't even make it to the start of spring training last year. After embracing a Red Sox mandate to report in better shape a year ago, Matsuzaka spent much of his offseason working out in Arizona, only to hurt his back on the eve of camp. Initially dismissed as inconsequential, Matsuzaka's condition caused him to miss so much time that he began the season on the disabled list with what was called a stiff neck but in reality allowed him a chance to build up his arm strength.

This winter, Matsuzaka followed his own workout regimen in Hawaii, and he comes to camp looking in top condition. On Wednesday, he threw 45 pitches in his first bullpen session, 15 more than the other pitchers, with the blessing of the Sox staff. Francona said that Matsuzaka, who was accustomed to throwing much more in Japan than he has stateside, was told that he could increase his workload if he demonstrated that his shoulder was strong.

"He wants to stay on the mound the whole year," Yamada translated in response to a question regarding Matsuzaka's goal this season. "In the past two years, he was not 100 percent confident in his physical condition. This training, he feels very good."

Matsuzaka went on the DL again last June with a forearm strain, but by the end of the season, he was stronger than at any time in 2009; his fastball averaged a touch over 92 miles an hour, a velocity similar to what he had in 2007.

It was also evident on occasion last season that Matsuzaka had issues with catcher Victor Martinez. This season, he will be working with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek, with whom he always has felt comfortable.

Francona also suggested Wednesday that Matsuzaka may fare better with less fanfare surrounding him, although the volume of Japanese media tracking him had already dropped substantially even before this spring.

"I think, for him, it's probably easier every time he takes the ball now that it's not quite as big an event, so he can be more of a normal baseball player," the manager said.

"Remember that first spring in Sarasota, he gave up a hit -- we had to about bring in the United Nations. Now he can go out and be more of a normal pitcher, which I think should be easier."

Will normal translate into effective?

"He believes that, based on his experience, he will perform better," Yamada said.

If so, another interpreter will be in line for a hand.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.