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DICE-K FEELING AT HOME ON MOUND

Inside an empty Tropicana Field, hours before Saturday's game against the Rays, Red Sox right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka walked to the pitching mound to inspect it.

Matsuzaka's much-hyped first big-league season has been mostly about transition - a unique turn from Japan's best pitcher to the major leagues.

Matsuzaka, who makes his first career start at the Trop today, has had to learn how to prepare his body for pitching every fifth day instead of every seventh day, as he did in Japan. He has had to adapt to a narrower strike zone, the different texture of American balls and AL lineups that can do damage from top to bottom.

A new mound was no different.

He also has the perks that come with being the highest-paid player to come out of Japan. The Sox spent more than $103-million for Matsuzaka's rights and a six-year contract, which includes his own masseuse, interpreter and housing allowance.

Regardless, the 26-year-old's transition to the majors has been a success, as shown by his 12-7 record and 3.79 ERA. And even after 21 starts, he has managed to keep opponents guessing.

"He has great command, he pitches with a lot of confidence," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He was just a different style pitcher than I anticipated."

When Matsuzaka made his first start against the Rays July 4 in Boston, he fed them mostly breaking balls. Rays third baseman Akinori Iwamura, who faced Matsuzaka in Japan, had told teammates to expect fastballs.

That has been the norm with Matsuzaka, Sox pitching coach John Farrell said. He can be a power pitcher one outing and a finesse pitcher the next. With an arsenal of pitches, hitters rarely outguess Matsuzaka.

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