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Felix shines brightest on historic night

Felix shines bright on historic night

BOSTON -- In Massachusetts, people visit The Fenway Wall the way people in the Middle East visit the Wailing Wall. With regularity, and with reverence.

They've done so for a century, during which they have observed kings in flannels and rogues in double-knits. It takes a lot to turn their heads.

This was a lot.

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They had come to bow to Daisuke Matsuzaka, and soon were bowing before Felix Hernandez. Honor of one man turned into dread of another.

They were drawn to the park to root for Dice-K, and to flashbulbs at his epic rendezvous with Ichiro Suzuki, and ended up rooting against the unthinkable.

They had come to see the man who would be emperor, and wound up getting the man who already is King.

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson never crashed a party quite like this, like Kenji Johjima, his other countryman who stepped on Dice-K, and Hernandez, who made sure he never got up.

"I knew this was going to be a big game, so it was fun for me," Hernandez said after coming within six outs, and J.D. Drew's single, of being crowned No-Hit King. "Everybody was talking about Dice-K, but I didn't care about that.

"I wanted to go out, focus, and do my best. Do my job ... throw strikes."

And spoil the expectations of 37,000 glued to their Fenway Park seats, including the media mob, besides the millions glued to TVs in both hemispheres.

Even Ichiro, who lives in a glass house, conceded this had to be his biggest audience yet.

"When I first faced Matsuzaka in Japan [in 1999], many people watched that," Ichiro said. "But considering this was worldwide, probably more people watched my at-bats tonight than at any time."

This could have appropriately been the first baseball game covered by Fortune magazine, as well as Sports Illustrated. Pennant race hopes, and economic trends, were on the line.

"Today, as yesterday, when my name was called and I was given a grand welcome by the fans, it gave me goose bumps," Matsuzaka said. "I got the sense early on that I'd finally arrived here in Boston."

The writing was on the walls, and on foreheads. Signage in Japanese draped buildings and lampposts. People walked around Kenmore Square wearing bandannas disbursed by a local seafood restaurant that said, in Japanese, "Fresh from Dice-K."

Others toted signs, handed out by an AM radio station, that simply said, again in Japanese script, "Welcome to Boston."

The only thing ordinary about the evening was Dice-K himself. At least, he was ordinary next to the glare shone by Hernandez -- the 21-year-old King, who in two starts this season has allowed a grand total of four hits in 17 innings.

As in his big-league debut six days earlier in Kansas City, Matsuzaka again pitched precisely (only one walk in his seven innings) and fielded brilliantly. But he also allowed eight hits -- including two doubles to Johjima -- and three runs.

"Shoot, you give this offense three runs to work with, we're going to win a lot of games," said his catcher, Jason Varitek. "In his eyes, it probably wasn't his best, but I wouldn't call it disappointing."

"It was a typical start for him," said Johjima, whose second-inning double sent Jose Guillen, who later scored, to third to help hand Matsuzaka the first deficit of his Major League career. "He gave up hits, but only three runs -- getting through trouble is what makes him so good."

Matsuzaka vs. Ichiro did not disappoint, as the 300,000 eyewitnesses of the reunion will tell you in the future. With such pivotal events, the more time passes, the more people will claim to have been there.

"He and I are probably the only ones who could have made this moment happen," said Ichiro, candor getting the best of his humility. "So to have been able to be in that moment ... I'm happy about it."

In four head-to-heads, Matsuzaka threw 17 pitches to Ichiro, and defiantly got the best of him. Suzuki's 0-for-4 consisted of a comebacker, a weak opposite-field fly, a strikeout and a grounder into a force.

Johjima made better use of the nine pitches he saw in three at-bats, with his two doubles wrapped around a force-play grounder.

"There was so much talk about Matsuzaka facing Ichiro," Johjima said, grinning. "but no one was thinking about him facing me, so he took it easier on me."

He said it facetiously, yet there was some supporting evidence. Ichiro, for instance, was the one sent sprawling by a seventh-inning duster, the closest pitch as Dice-K consistently worked him inside.

"No, I don't remember him always doing that in Japan," Ichiro said, "but he is always different. All pitchers change, all the time."

Before the concession that contributing to this event pleased him, for two days, Suzuki hadn't seemed overly enthusiastic about getting caught up in others' hysteria. He displayed cynicism typical of someone who has lived in the glare long before it began getting into everyone else's eyes.

His mood wasn't lifted by going 0-for-8 in the first two games of this series, dropping his early average from .400 to .222.

Yet he certainly was not averse to giving Dice-K his due.

"I wasn't noticing his pitches as much as his presence on the mound," Ichiro said. "Not many professional baseball players have that.

"Only the very strong do. It's that presence that makes it possible for him to be a star."

The presence of both lit up the darkening skies at 7:11 p.m. ET, as flashbulbs popped for Matsuzaka's first windup, like migrating hordes of fireflies.

Despite the blinding effect, Dice-K threw a strike and Varitek caught it.

Ichiro also noticed. The baseball rock star shrugged; been there, seen that.

"Now," he said, laughing openly, "if Dice-K had been snapping my picture from the mound ... that would have surprised me."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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