PORTLAND – The 52-year-old baseball fan crouched next to the television cameramen at Hadlock Field. Kiyoo Morita wanted his own photos of his hero and countryman. He aimed his lens at Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Click. Click-click-click.

“I hope he comes back very quickly to help the Red Sox,” said Morita, who drove some three hours from his home in Massachusetts for the game. “I believe. I do.”

The Japanese pitcher more widely known as Dice-K was in a Portland Sea Dogs uniform Saturday, continuing to work his way back from serious elbow surgery last June. He struck out seven Reading Phillies batters and walked only two. He gave up three hits, including a high fly ball lost in the sun for a triple. The Sea Dogs beat Reading, 9-1.

To call Matsuzaka’s work a command performance would be an overstatement. But there was no denying the standing ovation and cheers he saw and heard when he was relieved in the fifth inning. The appearance of the man who signed a six-year, $50 million contract in 2007 was part celebrity sighting, part baseball revival.

That’s why Morita bought his ticket. He left Japan four years ago to live in America. In the crowd, I saw only two Matsuzaka baseball shirts with the number 18 on the back. Morita’s was one. “I see the Red Sox maybe five, six times a year because of Matsuzaka. He is still a very good pitcher. We are very proud.”

For a time Saturday, not everyone shared that belief.

Thirty minutes before the ballpark gates opened, the line of fans stretched nearly 100 yards up the sidewalk to the doors of the Portland Expo, a sight normally not seen in the spring. On a blue-sky but blustery April afternoon — gametime temperature was 46 degrees — more than 7,000 fans filled Hadlock Field to near capacity.

Why? Most Improved Student Day was one reason. Hundreds of students from around the state marched across the outfield as they were introduced to the crowd.

To see Dice-K up close was the bigger reason. No pitcher with a more expensive arm has ever stepped on Hadlock’s mound. Dwight Gooden, with the Yankees in 1997, came to Portland for rehab work. He earned $2 million that year. Minor league fans love it when the major league stars play in their small ballparks.

Matsuzaka has tested your patience. He breaks your heart. He walks too many batters. He pitches his way into too many predicaments, allowing opposing runners to score. He shows so little emotion. He hasn’t earned that $50 million contract. Then he suffered the elbow injury that requires Tommy John surgery and a 10- to 12-month recovery.

“It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when you’re looking forward to Dice-K returning,” said Rick St. Amand of Augusta. “Why am I here? My granddaughter is getting recognized (as a Most Improved Student).” He paused. “I have to say I want to see Dice-K pitch, too.”

Up and down the line and later inside the ballpark, the opinions didn’t vary much. “I’m not that enamored with him,” said Mike Candelora of Lovell, searching for his adult son. “But it’s worth it to see him pitch here.”

Soon it was time for Matsuzaka to walk in from the bullpen where he had been warming up behind the right field fence. Sam Luebbert and Luke Boyle, conspicuous in their Deering High baseball uniforms, were on the field. They judged Matsuzaka’s path and positioned themselves, the cameras on their cellphones ready.

As soon as he passed, they bolted off the field, heading to the parking lot. “We’ve got a game in Westbrook,” said Boyle, a second baseman. “It starts at 3. We’ve got to get going.”

Was the brief glimpse worth it to them? “Oh, absolutely,” said Luebbert. “He’s Dice-K.”

Matsuzaka touched the bill of his cap to acknowledge the warm applause before he ducked into the Sea Dogs dugout. He pitched the top of the first inning without incident and a few fans stood to applaud when he came off the field.

The innings sailed by. Matsuzaka was that efficient. He was in control. Reading batters had trouble catching up with his 90 to 92 mph fastballs.

Afterward, he met the media, speaking through a translator. He has much work to do, he said. He has been away from baseball for so long. The tone of his voice sounded serious but it was at odds with the ghost of a small smile. He looked pleased.

So were the fans. I stopped Mike and Bill Paradis of South Portland and Scarborough as they were leaving Hadlock with their young families. They had sat in the right field seats, above the door to the bullpen which leads back into the Sea Dogs clubhouse.

When Matsuzaka left the dugout to walk back to the clubhouse, those fans gave him another standing ovation. “He looked up at us and tipped his cap,” said Mike Paradis. “It was pretty cool. He looked like he was ready to pitch for the Red Sox.”

Matsuzaka left the game one out short of qualifying for the pitching victory. It didn’t seem to matter. He had won back these fans.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be reached at 791-6412 or at:

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Twitter: SteveSolloway/PPH