Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka was "surprised" to hear the Boston Red Sox bid $51.1 million for the rights to negotiate a contract with him.

"I was very surprised when I heard the figure," the 26-year-old said Wednesday before flying to the United States. "It shows that they really appreciate my ability. I know there will be a lot of pressure, but that's something I'm used to and something I enjoy."

The right-hander has a 108-60 career record with a 2.95 ERA and 1,355 strikeouts in 204 games.

Matsuzaka said he looked forward to seeing Boston, though he stressed that he hasn't signed a contract so "it's not as though I'm on the team yet. The Red Sox are a team that has a long history, great fans and a great atmosphere."

Represented by agent Scott Boras, Matsuzaka has 30 days to negotiate a contract with the Red Sox. If he doesn't agree to a contract, the bid will not be paid.

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The Red Sox have a chance to turn their shaky rotation into a spectacular one. Matsuzaka should fit nicely into a rotation that includes two other power-pitching right-handers who will be 26 when next season starts: Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon.

Plus, veterans Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield are expected back.

That's quite an improvement from last year when injuries forced Boston to use Kyle Snyder, Kason Gabbard, Kevin Jarvis, Jason Johnson and Devern Hansack as starters. None began the season with the Red Sox, and Snyder figures to be the only one with a decent chance to return.

"We have long admired Mr. Matsuzaka's abilities and believe he would be a great fit with the Red Sox organization," Boston general manager Theo Epstein said at the general managers' meetings in Naples, Fla. "Clearly, we believe Mr. Matsuzaka is a real talent."

The Red Sox finished third in the AL East after coming in second behind the New York Yankees the previous eight years.

The Yankees, New York Mets, Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers were thought to be among the unsuccessful bidders.

Matsuzaka impressed major league scouts when he helped Japan win the inaugural World Baseball Classic title last March. He earned MVP honors for the win over Cuba.

Hidekazu Ota, acting owner of Matsuzaka's Seibu Lions of Japan's Pacific League, announced the bid earlier Wednesday.

"I want Daisuke to realize his dreams of playing in the major leagues," Ota said. "He is a treasure in Japan and we are very pleased that the best possible evaluation has been made for him."

He was 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA and 200 strikeouts for the Lions this year. He throws in the high-90s mph, has good off-speed pitches and is known for his deceptive "gyroball."

Matsuzaka has long been considered one of the brightest prospects in Japanese professional baseball.

In his eight-year career in Japan, he led the Pacific League in wins three times and in strikeouts four times and captured the ERA title twice. He also won the Sawamura Award, Japan's version of the Cy Young award.

"We're excited to have won this part of the process and we're hopeful we can reach an agreement," Epstein said.

Earlier this month, Epstein mentioned a starting pitcher as one of many needs the team has going into its third season since winning its first World Series in 86 years in 2004. He also praised veteran Julian Tavarez, who pitched very well down the stretch as a starter after spending most of the season pitching inconsistently out of the bullpen.

"More than likely we'll acquire a starting pitcher and Julian will be back in the setup role in the bullpen," Epstein said at the time.

The Red Sox began last spring training with seven potential starters but ended the season with a lack of depth in the rotation. Schilling, who has said he will retire after the 2007 season, was 15-7 with a 3.97 ERA. Beckett, in his first season in the AL since being acquired from Florida, was 16-11 but had a 5.01 ERA.

Two potential starters left the rotation when Boston traded Bronson Arroyo to Cincinnati in spring training and turned Papelbon into a closer early in the season. Epstein said after the season that Papelbon would become a starter in 2007. Starting pitchers David Wells and Matt Clement missed considerable time with injuries.

Jon Lester, a promising left-hander who went 7-2 after being called up in early June, is being treated for anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a type of cancer that forms in the body's lymph system.

Boston manager Terry Francona, limited by privacy issues, said early this month that "the only thing I think I'd feel comfortable saying is his spirit is unbelievably positive and I think he's doing fantastic."

Lester's return to full strength would be another boost for the club.

"I don't care how many home runs you hit," former Red Sox pitching star Luis Tiant, who still works in a public relations capacity for the team, said Tuesday night. "If you don't have any pitching when you need it to stop the offense, you're not going to win."

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