ST. PETERSBURG -- There's little mystery left between the Red Sox and the Rays as they prepare to meet for the American League Championship Series on Friday night, a fact that doesn't faze Game 1 starter Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Tabbed by Red Sox manager Terry Francona to begin their march for the pennant, the 18-game winner will take the ball opposite Rays starter James Shields.
"I've faced this team many times, but it's hard to refer back to last year, because I've also changed as a pitcher," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino on Thursday. "A lot of the same players are still in the lineup, so I have a good idea of what good spots to pitch to and what pitches are effective, so I just hope that I can execute those pitches."
Matsuzaka is coming off a gritty no-decision that led to Boston's Game 2 AL Division Series win at Anaheim, and for reasons that have even eluded Red Sox manager Terry Francona, Dice-K has turned road hostility into house money, going 9-0 away from Fenway Park.
"I guess some of it is, I don't think he cares where he pitches," Francona said. "Not necessarily that he'd prefer to pitch on the road, but that he doesn't mind it. He's able to shut out some of the things on the periphery and just able to concentrate on pitching."
That mental wherewithal could prove huge at Tropicana Field, Boston's house of horrors in the regular season. The Red Sox went 1-8 on the Rays' home turf, and that victory came after Dice-K tossed five innings of one-run baseball on Sept. 15.
Matsuzaka's 18 wins are the sixth-most by a Boston hurler in his second season, and a Major League record for Japanese pitchers, surpassing Hideo Nomo's thrice-accomplished total of 16.
But longevity has been an Achilles' heel for Matsuzaka; the right-hander labored through the Game 2 ALDS start, to the tune of 108 pitches in five innings, and lasted only five innings in each of his three regular-season starts against the Rays.
"Everyone talks about him as being a power pitcher, I believe he's primarily a breaking ball pitcher; he likes his slider and his change," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "His fastball, he likes to throw outside of the strike zone, he doesn't like to necessarily challenge with it."
Although Dice-K has been masterful at avoiding landmines -- he held opposing batters to a Major League-best .211 average -- the right-hander must get ahead and stay ahead to keep the Rays' threatening speed on the bench. His AL-leading 94 walks ideally would be held at bay.
"When he's pitched behind and walked and put runners on base, he hasn't given up a lot of hits," Francona said. "There's been a couple different formulas for winning, and they've been different. But the final result is that he's won a heck of a lot more than he's lost."
Favorable pitch counts could also help unleash Matsuzaka's wide repertoire and further baffle the Rays' batters, who have struggled with Dice-K's funky and always-changing delivery.
Matsuzaka is 2-1 with a 5.11 ERA in five postseason starts since joining the Sox, and to be successful in the ALCS, he may stress throwing first-pitch strikes.
"It's true for any pitcher, but getting that first-pitch strike puts you at a big advantage for that at-bat," Matsuzaka said. "But I wouldn't say that being able to get that first-pitch strike boosts my confidence in any way. And on the other hand, just because I couldn't get the first-pitch strike, it doesn't cause any anxiety on my part."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.