His physical woes possibly behind him, Daisuke Matsuzaka gave a tantalizing glimpse of his abilities with a brilliant performance in Monday afternoon’s 5-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals.
After two lengthy stays on the disabled list this season, missing the first 58 games recovering from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, Matsuzaka recorded his first win since May 8, 2011 vs. Minnesota.
Matsuzaka threw seven innings and allowed an unearned run on five hits and a pair of walks to go with six strikeouts. He threw 101 pitches, 71 for strikes.
“You know, he gave us what we needed — 100 pitches, seven innings, five hits,’’ said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine. “It’s a good outing.’’
It had been quite some time since anyone used those words to describe one of Matsuzaka’s outings, especially after he went 0-3 with a 6.65 ERA in the five starts since his return from Tommy John surgery June 9.
After he gave up five runs on four hits, including a pair of homers, in a 6-1 loss at Oakland July 2, Matsuzaka went back on the DL, this time with a right trapezius strain. He missed the next 48 games.
“When I returned back in June and didn’t get the results that I wanted I thought for a moment that I wouldn’t be able to pitch a game like today this season,’’ Matsuzaka said through his interpreter Jeff Cutler. “I got back to my rehab and my last two rehab starts in Pawtucket went really good and I knew that if I was able to pitch like that up here, the results would come.’’
Matsuzaka earned his 50th major league win and helped the Red Sox, now five games under .500 (62-67), take three of four from the Royals. The Sox embark Tuesday on a nine-game West Coast swing to Los Angeles, Oakland, and Seattle.
“He looked real sharp, had great command and went after the hitters from the first inning,’’ said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “Next inning, we tried to slow him down a little bit. It’s going to be a process of getting that feeling back and getting that sharpness back.
“But today was really good.’’
The only blemish came in the first inning, when Matsuzaka issued a leadoff walk to Jarrod Dyson, who stole second and went to third on an error by Dustin Pedroia, who failed to handle Saltalamacchia’s throw to second.
Dyson scored on Alex Gordon’s sacrifice fly to right.
But in the bottom of the inning, Jacoby Ellsbury, who went 2 for 4 with a double and two runs, belted a solo homer to right off Royals starter Luke Hochevar (7-12), who tossed his second complete game of the season (and fifth of his career), absorbing his first loss while going the distance.
“He’s driving the ball better, hitting with some power, really aggressive on the bases,’’ Valentine said of Ellsbury, who batted in the No. 3 position for the third time this season. “It seems like his body is feeling good about baseball right now. Getting that first run, tying it up really quickly, you never know how big that is, but it was big.’’
Said Ellsbury, “It’s nice to tie the game up and give our team some momentum. But I thought Daisuke pitched great. He was the big story of the day.’’
Matsuzaka came back and threw six scoreless frames, allowing five hits and one walk in that stretch.
Matsuzaka’s only dicey moment came in the sixth, when Gordon doubled and Billy Butler walked. Gordon advanced to third on Salvador Perez’s fly to right, putting runners on the corners.
But Matsuzaka got out of the jam with a 93-mile-per-hour fastball that Mike Moustakas tipped into Saltalamacchia’s glove for a strikeout.
“When I went back on the DL back in July it was very discouraging, especially since I didn’t expect my body to respond in the way that it did,’’ Matsuzaka said. “The encouraging part about that was that it wasn’t my elbow.
“My elbow was feeling fine, despite not being sure that I’d be able to come back strong this season and pitch a game like I did today. I was able to work at it and the results eventually started to come.
“My body feels a lot better than it did before I had Tommy John and my body definitely feels better than it did back in June.’’
Cody Ross broke a 1-1 stalemate with two outs in the third with a two-run single to left that scored Scott Podsednik (single to right) and Pedroia (infield hit).
The Sox tacked on two runs in the sixth when Ellsbury reached on a one-out double off the wall and Ross drove him in with a double off the wall. James Loney recorded his second RBI in as many games with the Sox when he ripped a single to left that scored Ross to make it 5-1.
Clayton Mortensen relieved Matsuzaka to start the eighth and allowed back-to-back one-out hits. He handed it over to Vicente Padilla, who induced Perez to ground into a 4-6-3 double play.
Andrew Bailey tossed a scoreless ninth, giving him six scoreless outings in seven appearances since coming off the DL Aug. 14.
“We’ve had a lot of drama this year, so to speak, and I think now that the organization has made its mind up of which direction it wants to go, I think it’s back to baseball,’’ Bailey said. “With so many questions kind of flowing around the last couple of weeks, now it’s kind of a sense of ‘It’s over with, it’s done with, let’s focus on the game.’
“It’s just nice to get back to baseball.’’
After recording his first win in more than a year, Matsuzaka no doubt shared that sentiment.