Provided the opportunity to serve as the less acclaimed competitor in the Japanese showdown that was staged at Fenway Park on Friday night, Kawakami once again thrived in the underdog role with a performance that easily trumped the disappointing one provided by Daisuke Matsuzaka.
With an aggressive attack toward the strike zone and the backing of Garret Anderson's four-RBI performance, Kawakami helped the Braves begin a daunting 13-game stretch with an 8-2 win over the Red Sox.
"The bigger the event, the more he rises to it," Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell said. "Every time there has been one of these events, he has done very well."
With a national television audience waiting to see if Matsuzaka could overcome his recent struggles, Kawakami stole the show by limiting the Red Sox to two hits and two runs over six innings. All of his damage came courtesy of Jason Bay, who delivered a second-inning double and a two-run sixth-inning homer.
"There was some pressure, because in Japan, they broadcast a lot of American League games, and they don't broadcast many National League games," Kawakami said. "As a Japanese player, with all of the Japanese fans watching, I didn't want to pitch bad."
Proving dominant like he had exactly three weeks earlier with eight scoreless innings against Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays, Kawakami struck out four of the first five batters he faced. Braves manager Bobby Cox attributed this success to the fact that the 33-year-old rookie threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 23 batters whom he faced.
"We've been talking to him about getting more strike ones, because he has good stuff," Cox said. "He's got a great curveball, a great cutter and a real good split. But when you get behind, it's hard to use your whole arsenal all of the time."
While Kawakami was unfazed by the spotlight, Matsuzaka found his forgettable performance begin with Nate McLouth hitting his first pitch of the evening over the right-center-field wall. McLouth's eighth career leadoff homer sparked a two-run first inning that might have proved more productive had Casey Kotchman not lined into an inning-ending double play.
Matsuzaka missed the strike zone with 13 of his first 16 pitches, and each of the three strikes he threw during that span were put in play for hits. Yunel Escobar followed McLouth's homer with a single that put him in position to race to third base on a Chipper Jones double. Over the course of the next eight pitches, Brian McCann and Anderson drew consecutive walks.
"It looked like he wasn't as confident as we've seen him," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of Matsuzaka, who was charged with six earned runs and eight hits in just four-plus innings.
While provided his first opportunity to serve as a designated hitter this year, Anderson chased Matsuzaka with a fifth-inning RBI double and then added a seventh-inning RBI single. The 36-year-old outfielder's most recent four-RBI performance had occurred with the Angels on July 30, 2008, which had previously stood as his most recent game at Fenway Park.
"There were a lot of other guys in the lineup that hit tonight, too," said Anderson, who had totaled four RBIs in his previous 13 games this month. "So for me to say it's because I played here so much, no, I wouldn't say that. I've had some bad nights here. It just happened today."
While losing seven of their previous eight games before Thursday's 7-0 win in Cincinnati, the Braves had been saddled by their inconsistent offense. But while combining for 15 runs over the course of the past two days, they've produced reason for hope during this 13-game stretch that will pit them against the Red Sox, Cubs, Yankees and Phillies.
Proving his potential value in the leadoff role, McLouth has homered both of the past two days and tallied six RBIs to give him a total of eight through his first 14 games with the Braves. His two-out fourth-inning double furthered Matsuzaka's trouble and allowed Kawakami to pitch with some added comfort.
"We were able to keep putting some runs on the board and kept the pedal to the metal," Anderson said.
While posting a 3.35 ERA over the course of his past nine starts, Kawakami has given the Braves reason to have confidence in their decision to give him a three-year, $23 million contract in January.
Kawakami's cost paled in comparison to the price the Red Sox paid to acquire Matsuzaka. But during this Japanese showdown, there was no doubt that he was the one with the greater value.
"My teammates said this was a Japanese battle and told me not to lose to him," Kawakami said through his interpreter. "I felt with their support and the run support, I couldn't lose today."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.