Matsuzaka Has That Very, Very Special Look

This season the Dodgers got their closer from the most unexpected source as Takashi Saito arrived unheralded from Japan and rode to the rescue when Eric Gagne went down. Now, as they survey the scene for 2007, they know that a front-line starter is the number one object they're seeking. And it may well be that they've turned in the same direction for the answer.

But Daisuke Masuzaka is hardly an unknown. He is, rather, the most renown player in his country since Ichiro departed. He towers above the other pitchers in his homeland, a Gulliver among Lilliputians as it were.

He's done that from the start. The high school playoffs in Japan are as big on the sports scene there as the Super Bowl is here. In 1998 he pitched his school from Yokohama to the championship and was the Player of the Year.

To leap from high school to the big leagues is done about as often there as it is here but he not only did it, he was Rookie of the Year. Since then, he's won his country's equivalent of the Cy Young award. This season you might have seen him in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Naturally, he pitched Japan to the championship and was named MVP.

Then it was back to work for the Seibu Lions for whom he was 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA, pitching 186 .1 innings in which he struck out 200 batters while- get this- walking only 34. They managed only a .206 average against him.

Oh, yeah, he's very special. He was the first Japanese pitcher ever to clock 100 mph on the gun with his fast ball usually arriving at about 96. He has a wicked forkball, a slider, a change and this season added a screwball, just to have some fun.

It's to get more enjoyment out of the game that he's long been making plans to come to this country. He's Alexander the Great seeking new worlds to conquer. He wanted to come last year but Seibu said "no." Now, they've agreed to post him one year before he becomes a free agent.

He's only 26 and isn't particularly imposing physically, standing just an even six feet and weighing 190. He did have elbow problems a couple of years ago but seems sound now. Some do question that the amount of innings he piles up - he pitched 22 complete games this year - might cause him to flame out early.

Naturally, the Dodgers have scouted him. Why, they've even sent their point man, Logan White, to look him over. And naturally they'd love to have him. But will they? For unlike Saito, Masuzaka will be anything but cheap.

It cost the Mariners $13.1 million just to get the rights to Ichiro. For Masuzaka, the word is that if you don't want to fork over at least $20 million, don't bother bidding. For one thing, George Steinbrenner is more than a little interested and we all know George spends big most of the time.

And that's just for the right to talk to him. After that, there's the matter of the contract so he's hired an agent- Scott Boras. Oh, my. You think Luke Hochevar was expensive ?

If the Dodgers do bid- and chances are they will- they'll probably find at least 10 other clubs who are willing to as well. Not only the Yankees but the Angels, Mariners, Red Sox and Mets are contemplating doing so. The big money guys that have a habit of outspending the Dodgers.

But you think Nomo was good? This guy figures to be better than he ever was as well as Barry Zito or any of the other free agents available this winter. Whoever gets him may have Japan's biggest gift to the world since Godzilla.