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RED SOX 4, DEVIL RAYS 1

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Matsuzaka wins his 10th game by tossing eight strong innings

Legend has it that the hotter it got in Japan, the better Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched.

Last night it was cool at Fenway Park, a superb night to play and watch a baseball game, as 37,005 could attest. But these days, Matsuzaka probably could be dominant in an igloo.

The Red Sox' 4-1 win over the Devil Rays raised the possibility that we might be starting to see the dominating pitcher Matsuzaka was in Japan.

"I don't think it's complete, but I do feel like I'm getting back to a good spot and I've really been experiencing that over the past few starts," he said.

The Sox' $103 million man has been sizzling, posting a 3-0 record and 0.62 ERA in his last four starts, including last night's eight shutout innings. He allowed four hits and struck out nine in improving his record to 10-5.

With the performances of Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima, the Red Sox are willing to commit even more resources to Japanese baseball. After the game, the team announced it had entered a "strategic alliance" with the Chiba Lotte Marines of Nippon Professional Baseball in the areas of scouting and player development.

Matsuzaka, whose ERA has dropped from a high of 4.83 to 3.53 in his last five starts, showed signs he might turn into an elite pitcher in sending the Devil Rays to their ninth straight defeat.

"I think we think we have quite a pitcher," said manager Terry Francona. "I think he's had to go through some adjusting because of cultural differences, all of the things we talk about from time to time, but he's been a polished pitcher from the day we got him."

Matsuzaka told Japanese reporters he wasn't overly impressed with reaching 10 wins, as he considers that the minimum a starting pitcher in any league should get.

He threw 1-2-3 innings in the third and fourth while striking out three. He also struck out two in the fifth, sandwiched around a Delmon Young hit-by-pitch. He allowed a hit to Akinori Iwamura in the sixth, and although Coco Crisp made a nice throw to second base, Dustin Pedroia dropped it for an error. But Matsuzaka then got two lineouts to get out of the inning.

In the seventh, Matsuzaka walked leadoff man Carlos Peña (who hit a ninth-inning homer off Jonathan Papelbon), but he induced a double-play ball from Greg Norton and then got Ty Wigginton to ground to short.

Matsuzaka had great movement on his split-fingered pitch and two-seam fastball. He threw impressive breaking balls. He seemed buoyant on the mound, appearing to be in a tremendous place with his repertoire and his confidence.

"I rarely have a good feeling early in the game," Matsuzaka said. "because that usually causes me to let my guard down. Sometimes in the later innings, I have a feeling 'I'm doing well today,' but that doesn't happen until later on in the game."

Those who have watched him pitch in Japan over the years have commented that Matsuzaka has yet to show his best in the major leagues. After efforts such as last night's, one can understand what they mean.

The Sox opened a 3-0 lead in the second when Julio Lugo stroked a two-run single up the middle, breaking his 0-for-33 slump. He received a standing ovation, and it must have felt to him as if he'd just won the lottery. He added a single in the seventh but got picked off first base by the catcher when he was caught leaning the wrong way.

Devil Rays starter Scott Kazmir, who normally owns the Red Sox, walked the bases loaded in the second, as Manny Ramírez, Kevin Youkilis, and Mike Lowell took free passes.

Kazmir almost minimized the damage because Jason Varitek's grounder to Wigginton at second base should have been a double play. However, Wigginton bobbled the ball and had to settle for the out at first as Ramírez scored. After Wily Mo Peña struck out looking, it was left to Lugo in the No. 9 hole, and he didn't disappoint.

The Sox got some insurance in the sixth on Varitek's hard-hit sacrifice fly to right, scoring Youkilis. The first baseman, back in the lineup after resting a sore left quadriceps Monday night, had singled to left and reached third on Lowell's infield hit to third (Lowell took second when Iwamura threw the ball away).

With Curt Schilling on the disabled list, the Sox must get top efforts out of Josh Beckett and Matsuzaka. In his last outing, Matsuzaka allowed three hits and one run over eight innings in a no-decision against Seattle in a 2-1, 11-inning Sox loss. Before that, he beat San Diego, 2-1, pitching six innings and allowing one run.

Before last night, he hadn't been getting a lot of support. In his previous six starts, the Sox had scored two runs or fewer, and they'd given him seven runs in those games. And in his five losses, the Sox managed four runs while he was in the game.

"As a starting pitcher, having run support early in the game surely helps," he said. "But today I wasn't too worried about the score."

There's a certain maturity that has developed. Matsuzaka seems confident he can dominate any lineup.

After a long bottom of the seventh in which the Sox had runners on but couldn't score, Matsuzaka came out for the eighth, did his normal stretching in back of the mound, then fanned Delmon Young for his eighth strikeout, the sixth straight start in which he has truck out eight or more.

Jonny Gomes singled and stole second. Dioner Navarro kept fouling off pitches, getting Matsuzaka's pitch count up, before Navarro sent a long fly to center that Crisp tracked down.

Matsuzaka went 3-and-0 to countryman Iwamura, who then took three straight strikes to end the inning and send the crowd into a roar. "Sweet Caroline" played as Matsuzaka left the field after 122 pitches and went into the dugout.

He was done, sizzling on a cool summer night.

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