Last November, after learning the Boston Red Sox had acquired the rights to negotiate with him, Daisuke Matsuzaka was asked at a news conference which batter he most wanted to face in America.
The eight-year pro from Japan, who says he has been dreaming about pitching from a major-league mound since he was a kid, replied without hesitation: "Ichiro."
Matsuzaka is scheduled to get his wish Wednesday when he makes his second major-league start and first at Fenway Park for the Red Sox as they host the Mariners.
But Matsuzaka has already faced Ichiro, 36 times, in fact. Matsuzaka's Seibu Lions and Ichiro's Orix Blue Wave were rivals in Japan's six-team Pacific League. Matsuzaka was an 18-year-old rookie fresh out of high school when he started five games against Orix in 1999. He started five more games against Ichiro's team the following season. Ichiro then left for Seattle and the two haven't gone against each other since.
Matsuzaka finished his career in Japan with a 108-60 record and a 2.95 earned-run average. He also completed 72 games.
Matsuzaka's preoccupation with Ichiro sounds like a guy looking for retribution. But that doesn't appear to be the case. Ichiro was just 8 for 34 (a .235 average), with one home run, four RBI, a walk, a sacrifice fly and four strikeouts in those encounters.
The four strikeouts? Sprinkled over 10 games and two years, they wouldn't seem to be particularly noteworthy. But three of them came in one game. And not just any game. It was the first time they faced each other.
What's more, the strikeouts came in succession, beginning with Ichiro's first at-bat against Matsuzaka. The day was May 16, 1999, at what was then known as the Seibu Dome.
Ichiro has struck out three times in a game on only four occasions since becoming a Mariner in 2001. The last time was May 3, 2005, against the Angels.
The same pitcher recording all three strikeouts is even more rare. That has happened only once in the U.S., when the Athletics' Tim Hudson did it on Sept. 19, 2003 at Oakland.
Naturally, then, Ichiro remembers the encounter with Matsuzaka vividly.
"He got me, no question about it," Ichiro recounts of that Matsuzaka performance in which he drew a walk in the fourth and final plate appearance. "I wasn't vanquished, but he clearly toyed with me that first time."
Ichiro came to bat for the first time against Matsuzaka with two out and no one on in the first inning. Camera flashbulbs twinkled across the stadium as the count went to 2-2. The sixth pitch of the at-bat was a 91 mph fastball up and away that Ichiro swung at and missed.
Coming into the game, Japan's image of Matsuzaka had been of a pitcher with a great fastball. With his strikeout of Ichiro, the image was now firmly entrenched. But in Ichiro's next two at-bats against Matsuzaka, he saw something that left him astonished.
"Both times, he got me with a slider like I'd never seen before," Ichiro says. "They were great pitches. There was movement on them like I'd never seen on a slider. I can't describe it in words other than to say it was unlike anything I'd ever seen."
After the game, Matsuzaka described the experience with a line that's still famous in Japan: "My confidence turned into conviction today." Quite a statement from an 18-year old.
In typical Ichiro fashion, though, the slider didn't bamboozle him for long. In the final at-bat of their third matchup on July 6, 1999, Ichiro belted a Matsuzaka slider over the fence for his 100th career home run.
The two have been friendly since before Ichiro came to Seattle and were teammates on the Japanese club that won last year's World Baseball Classic. Even so, Ichiro hasn't stood the 60-foot 6-inch distance from Matsuzaka since doubling to the left-center gap and then grounding out three times in their final matchup on Aug. 4, 2000.
While it's tough for Ichiro to imagine exactly what kind of pitcher Matsuzaka has evolved into during that time, he is able to describe the potential he felt Matsuzaka possessed from their early matchups.
"He was fearless," Ichiro says, carefully choosing his words. "He was reckless in an effective way. That's the most appropriate description I can give of the pitcher I faced in those days."
Such a description is one he reserves only for young, emerging pitchers for whom he has the highest regard. It's a description he used for the Padres' Jake Peavy in their early encounters and one he still uses for the Athletics' Rich Harden, whom he faced just last week.
For Ichiro, the main curiosity now is how the 26-year old Matsuzaka has harnessed the effective recklessness of his youth. In other words, does he enhance his raw talent with intelligence and experience to attack batters? It's impossible to know without having faced him as a veteran pitcher, but Ichiro's voice sure drips with the anticipation of a competitor when he talks about the possibilities.
"I hope he arouses the fire that's dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul," he says. "I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger."
Considering Ichiro's rich but distant history with Matsuzaka, it's easy to understand that if Ichiro had been asked before the season which big-league pitcher he was most looking forward to facing, he likely would have answered: "Matsuzaka."
Brad Lefton is a bilingual, St. Louis-based journalist who covers Ichiro and the Mariners for Japanese media. He has spent his career covering baseball in Japan and America and interviewed Ichiro in Japanese for this article.