The Red Sox have a pitcher who has gotten similar lofty comparisons in recent weeks. But Matsuzaka, who was solid but not overpowering, knew that his margin for error was just about nonexistent against a pitcher the caliber of Hernandez.
"Of course, he's the ace of the Mariners and I felt very strongly that I didn't want them to get the go-ahead run," said Matsuzaka. "Once I allowed that first run to score, I felt very strongly that I couldn't let any more runs in after that point."
In his Fenway unveiling, Matsuzaka scattered eight hits and three runs over seven innings, walking one and striking out four. This, after a Major League debut in which he stifled the Royals to the tune of 10 strikeouts and one run over seven frames.
"I think we're hyping him up so much that when he gives up three runs, it's like, 'Oh my God.' I think he did a pretty good job," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "That's a pretty good lineup. He did OK. He gave us a chance to win. Three runs over seven innings, I'll take that."
Matsuzaka tried to take it all in during what was admittedly an emotion-filled night.
"With the great welcome I received from the fans here being at home, I got the sense early on that I finally arrived here in Boston," Matsuzaka said. "So at the very beginning, my psychological state may have been different, a little bit heightened compared to usual. But I wouldn't say that was a bad thing."
Amid a sea of flash bulbs on every pitch to start the game, Matsuzaka retired fellow Japanese icon Ichiro on a crisp hopper back to the box. Lowell was able to exhale from third base.
"Oh yeah, I could feel the flash bulbs, too," said Lowell. "I didn't want Ichiro to hit me a ball because I wouldn't be able to see the [darn] thing. I mean, there were so many bulbs going off. I said, 'Hopefully, he hits a ground ball, because if it's [a liner] right at me, I'm going to be seeing stars.' It was pretty cool. You had two of the best players from Japan facing off against each other, it's not something you see every day."
Matsuzaka ran into some legitimate trouble in the second. Jose Guillen stroked a one-out single to left and Kenji Johjima followed with a double to left. That set Yuniesky Betancourt up for a sacrifice fly to left.
Not that anybody knew it at the time, but that 1-0 deficit pretty much ended any chance the Red Sox had.
"It was a night there was no room for error," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "You know, the way Hernandez was throwing, you have to put up zeroes or you're in trouble."
But the Mariners began flexing their muscles again in the fifth. Jose Lopez got things started with a one-out single to right. The big hit of the inning came from Adrian Beltre, who walloped an RBI double to center. Jose Vidro followed with an RBI single and the Mariners had a 3-0 lead.
Not only were the Red Sox in a three-run hole, but they were positively helpless against Hernandez. In fact, Hernandez looked like a man on a mission, leaving the Red Sox increasingly bewildered with each passing inning.
Matsuzaka ended his 103-pitch night by making a terrific scoop at first base in completing a 3-6-1 double play off the bat of Vidro.
Despite the quality start, Matsuzaka's press conference took on an almost apologetic tone.
"Yesterday during the [Opening Day] ceremonies, when my name was called, I was given a grand welcome by the fans here," Matsuzaka said. "It gave me goose bumps. I wanted to respond to that great welcome in kind. Same thing today when my name was called. I received a big ovation and I felt again that I wanted to respond to the fan's welcome. I was disappointed that I wasn't able to respond to them in kind."
It's just that there was no response for Hernandez on Wednesday night. There was nothing Matsuzaka or anyone else could have done about that.