DETROIT - While Daisuke Matsuzaka was walking the house last night, a few swings made it all bearable for the Red Sox in a 6-3 win over the Detroit Tigers, whose promised extreme makeover by manager Jim Leyland could not mask the team's fourth straight loss.
It was thumbs-up for Mike Lowell, who hit his first home run and drove in his first runs of 2008 with a two-run shot in the second inning, and Kevin Youkilis, who hit his second tape-measure home run in two games to compensate for all the free passes (eight in five innings) Matsuzaka handed out to the Tigers.
Between the trip to Japan, the 20-games-in-20-days stress test, and a parade of contenders providing the early opposition, no one expected the Sox (21-13) to come close to matching the 10-game lead they had 40 games into last season. But they opened a four-game lead in the AL East while winning five of six in the Fens last week, and stayed hot here in winning the first game of a 10-game trip.
"There are not too many outings where you can walk that many and get through it, but he did it," manager Terry Francona said of Matsuzaka, who improved his record to 5-0 on a night that he was not only wild but weak. Francona had Julian Tavarez up in the third inning because lingering flu symptoms might have KO'd the Japanese righthander.
After Matsuzaka was safely out of harm's way, David Ortiz drove in the team's final two runs with a seventh-inning single and his sixth home run, which came in the ninth off Todd Jones.
Lowell, who had been sidelined by strained ligaments in his left thumb from April 10 until last Tuesday, had not knocked in a run in 16 regular-season games since last Sept. 29, also the date of his last home run. That supposed drought is a bogus one, given that he had 15 RBIs in 11 postseason games last October.
But for a guy who had a ca reer-best 120 RBIs in 2007, especially one who has a new book hitting the stores today called "Deep Drive," it was nice to get the first one of '08 out of the way.
Wouldn't want people thinking the new book was about golf.
"I honestly wish the home run had come a little earlier," said Lowell, playing along with the suggestion that it was all a clever marketing ploy. "But it felt good. I haven't had much success against [Jeremy] Bonderman."
Try no success. Until last night, Lowell, whose home run came after Manny Ramírez led off the second inning with a double, had never gotten a hit off Bonderman (0 for 9). Neither had Youkilis (0 for 12).
But before the game, Lowell not only declared that he was feeling more comfortable at the plate after coming off the DL, but also predicted Youkilis was eminently capable of developing a home run stroke that would put baseballs in the seats with some regularity.
"I never saw him in the minor leagues," Lowell said. "People told me he was this big, boxy guy, but my first impression of him was a good one, because he was already the player he was in '06. He's put together some good at-bats since the first time I saw him.
"And he'll develop more power. The one he hit [Sunday in Boston] was a no-doubter. He's very deliberate with his swing, but he'll learn as he goes along."
Francona said the Sox are content with Youkilis, who has two doubles, two home runs, and 7 RBIs in his last three games, just the way he is.
"Rather than project which way a guy will go, when he's out there grinding at-bats, swinging at pitches, we'll take it," Francona said. "He's a professional hitter. I'm sure Mike Lowell was giving him a huge compliment, but we like the kind of hitter he is."
Lowell doubled and scored ahead of Youkilis's fourth home run, deep into the left-field stands, in the fourth. He blooped a single in the sixth, and came just a couple feet short of another homer in the seventh.
"The only hurdle I have is to get the grip strength up," Lowell said. "I feel like my right hand is so much stronger than my left hand right now. I don't feel pain when I swing, but I don't know if there is a compensation there.
"The strength, how it affects the swing, I don't know. More than anything, I think I need to concentrate on drill work to become more consistent. I don't want to get in the bad habit of pulling off.
"I don't think I'm in midseason form, but I feel like I'm seeing pitches a little better."
The Tigers, and a crowd of 39,478 at
He walked two in the first, one in the second, two in the third, two in the fourth, and one in the fifth.
By then he'd set a personal record for walks in the US (he walked eight and hit a batter in a 10-inning complete game in Japan in 2001) and matched Fausto Carmona of Cleveland for most walks issued by a big-league pitcher in a game this season.
But Matsuzaka did not give up a hit until his 89th pitch, an RBI single by Curtis Granderson with two outs in the fourth, and allowed just one other single, by Miguel Cabrera, with two out and nobody on in the fifth. He followed that by issuing walk No. 8, to Gary Sheffield, and rookie outfielder Matt Joyce followed with a screaming line drive to right, directly at J.D. Drew to end the inning.
Joyce was part of the shakeup of the Tigers lineup promised by Leyland. The kid was called up from the minors to replace veteran Jacque Jones, who was designated for assignment.
Leyland made an outfielder out of Sheffield, who had been serving exclusively as DH, but dropped him from third to sixth in the order, because of a .185 average and 5 RBIs in 23 games. Carlos Guillen was moved from sixth to third.
All that tinkering, and the Tigers were looking at a lopsided loss until Sox reliever Craig Hansen loaded the bases in the seventh (he walked the last two batters he faced), and pinch hitter Marcus Thames stroked a two-run single off Hideki Okajima.
But Edgar Renteria flied out to end the threat - giving him an 0-for-4 day to go with two errors - Okajima breezed through the eighth, and Jonathan Papelbon finished the Tigers off for his 10th save.