PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - The rest of the pitchers had long finished their throwing. But a lone figure lingered on the mound Wednesday afternoon, his long stride whipping the rest of his body toward home plate.
Daisuke Matsuzaka said later on that had there actually been a hitter in the batter's box, he would have been ready to get him out. This had been the plan all along for the Mets righthander, who has arrived here with hopes of reviving his career.
"I'm in the process of getting back to the pitcher that I think I can be," Matsuzaka said through a translator Wednesday. "I think I'm making steps in the right direction so far."
For Matsuzaka, getting ready to take those steps forward meant being ready to face hitters the minute he arrived in camp. He hopes to seize the final spot in the Mets' starting rotation.
"It's been awhile since I've been able to spend my offseason where my body was 100 percent," Matsuzaka said. "Therefore, I was able to spend a lot of time on maintenance, treatment and training. That caused everything to move smoother."
Perhaps Matsuzaka was due for some smooth sailing.
Seven years have passed since the Red Sox spent $103.1 million to lure Matsuzaka from Japan. After two strong seasons, injuries hastened his descent, resulting in Tommy John surgery that sidelined him until late in 2012.
In 2013, he signed a minor-league deal with the Indians, then opted out in hopes of landing in the big leagues. The Mets snapped him up, then watched him tank in his first three starts.
But Matsuzaka finished strongly, allowing just four runs in his last four outings. He finished 3-3 with a 4.42 ERA, showing enough for the Mets to welcome him back on a minor-league deal for this season.
As Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka compete for the attention of the Japanese media, Matsuzaka has toiled here in obscurity, far removed from all the hype and hoopla that accompanied him from Japan all those years ago.
So far, it has suited him well.
Mets manager Terry Collins raved about how Matsuzaka has looked in the early days of camp. He said the righthander has been throwing since Jan. 1, a relatively early start date. But Collins said he's given the veteran pitcher plenty of leeway.
"You know yourself better than anybody," said Collins, recalling a conversation he had with Matsuzaka. "You know what you need to do to get ready. You do it and I'll back you up."
The 33-year-old Matsuzaka arrived in camp in better shape than last year, the result of an offseason devoted to working on his craft. He made small adjustments in his mechanics, emerging from the process feeling confident about his chances.
The Mets have several candidates to fill out the rotation. Long Beach native John Lannan is also in camp in hopes of giving the team a veteran lefthanded arm. Meanwhile, Jenrry Mejia leads a contingent of homegrown pitchers in the hunt for the job.
But after throwing a 50-pitch bullpen session Wednesday, Matsuzaka said he's given himself a chance to compete. Though Grapefruit League games won't begin for more than a week, Matsuzaka believes he's ready to face hitters.
Said Matsuzaka: "I'm feeling good right now."
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