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The Dice is wild Red Sox pitcher still pleases crowd Control problems in fourth inning send Matsuzaka to defeat

Daisuke Matsuzaka didn't win Tuesday night but he didn't disappoint the folks who piled into the Rogers Centre to see him pitch.

The $103 million Japanese import known as "Dice-K" struck out 10 over six innings and allowed only three hits but his fourth-inning wildness allowed the Toronto Blue Jays to pull out a 2-1 win over the Boston Red Sox in the opener of a three-game series.

Matsuzaka walked three -- all coming in a four-batter span of Toronto's decisive two-run fourth. The final free pass, to Toronto catcher Gregg Zaun, forced in Frank Thomas with the tie-breaking run. After that, Matsuzaka retired the final eight men he faced, five on strikeouts.

"He had temporary amnesia for a couple minutes," cracked Boston manager Terry Francona. "He was so good before and after that. For about four or five hitters there, he just really lost his touch. That was a long inning."

In three starts, Matsuzaka is 1-2 with a 2.70 earned run average, posting 24 strikeouts and five walks in 20 innings. He also struck out 10 in his first start April 5 at Kansas City, and is the first big-leaguer to fan at least 10 in two of his first three outings since Fernando Valenzuela did it in 1981.

The surge of interest in Matsuzaka is unlike anything seen in baseball since "Fernando Mania" swept Los Angeles 26 years ago. The Jays drew their largest crowd since Opening Day (42,162), in part because of a Tuesday $2 promotion for upper-deck seats. There were around 100 Japanese journalists in the house and they chronicled every move Matsuzaka made, all the way from pregame stretching to a packed postgame news conference in an auxiliary locker room filled with dozens of reporters and 20 cameras lining the back wall.

Several Japanese flags were hung around the building by fans and flashbulbs were popping in the stands through most of the early innings.

It's the second straight start, however, in which Matsuzaka got little run support. Wily Mo Pena's mammoth home run in the third, a 442-foot shot off the center-field restaurant windows, accounted for Boston's only run as Toronto's Gustavo Chacin (2-0) went 6 2/3 innings to push his career record to 6-0 against the Sox. Boston was shut out in Dice-K's last start as Seattle's Felix Hernandez tossed a one-hitter.

"I don't know if the fact they're competing against me leads them to perform at any higher level," Matsuzaka said through his interpreter. "But in both games, the opposing pitchers had great location. In a situation like today, I regret that I gave up those runs."

Matsuzaka got off to an impressive start by retiring the first eight hitters, four on strikeouts, until Toronto second baseman Jason Smith singled to right with two out in the third. Matsuzaka ran into the biggest trouble of his young major-league career as the Jays collected two of their three hits in the fourth and scored their only runs.

Vernon Wells reached on an infield chopper to third and Thomas walked. Lyle Overbay followed with a game-tying single, a scorcher that could have been a double-play ball but got through the reach of shortstop Julio Lugo.

Matsuzaka seemed unnerved by that hit as he walked Aaron Hill on four pitches and followed with a bases-loaded walk to Zaun that put the Blue Jays ahead.

"To have a grounder going over shortstop, that's what I had expected," Matsuzaka said. "But I also noticed the runner overlapping the shortstop so it was not an easy play to make. Those two walks being the result, I guess I can't" deny that he was unnerved.

"He doesn't give in," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "He'll throw his off-speed stuff behind in the count and he certainly has an above-average fastball. He throws anything, anytime."

Matsuzaka threw 105 pitches, well below what he's done in the past in Japan. But it's only April, so Francona took him out after six innings.

"He was politicking and wanted to go back out, and I'm glad for that, but the fourth was a long inning," Francona said. "Forty pitches is tough duty. I told him later in the season he could definitely talk me into it."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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