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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Matsuzaka is still safe at new home

He'd been spared the talk show torchings, the columnist wisecracks, and the wrath of the Nation. Like some of his teammates, Daisuke Matsuzaka was able to work through a June slump without getting much attention.

But if the Red Sox had not been safely ensconced in first place, there might have headlines asking about "Tumbling Dice" and serious speculation about the $103 Million Man March to Mediocrity.

He'd lost three straight starts. His Fenway ERA was 5.62. If not for a cushy lead over the Yankees, we might have been asking why everyone made such a big deal about Dice-K all winter and spring.

But none of the negativity ever rained down on Matsuzaka's gentle face because the Sox were winning.

And then yesterday, with the hoofbeats of the Yanks again audible from the southwest, Dice-K came through with seven stellar innings of shutout ball in a surgical 1-0 win over the San Francisco Giants. The victory stopped Dice-K's personal losing streak, lowered his ERA to 4.18, and kept the Sox 8 1/2 games ahead of the suddenly-hot team in New York.

With significant help from the generous and inconsistent work of plate umpire Charlie Reliford, Dice-K smothered Barry Bonds (1 for 6 at Fenway this weekend) and the Giants on three hits, fanning eight. Dice-K's countryman, Hideki Okajima, took care of the eighth inning, Jonathan Papelbon saved it in the ninth, and Manny Ramírez supplied the only offense with a fourth-inning homer off 22-year-old Matt Cain.

"Daisuke was really good, and on a day when he had to be every bit that good," said Sox manager Terry Francona.

This was a tidy game, a worthy successor to the Giants' last series against the Red Sox at Fenway -- an epic joust that concluded with Smoky Joe Wood beating Christy Mathewson in the eighth and final game of the 1912 World Series.

Matsuzaka's drama unfolded in the sixth. He walked Randy Winn to start the inning, losing the Giants' left fielder after getting ahead, 1 and 2. Then came a single to left by Ray Durham and suddenly, the menacing Bonds was standing at home plate with two aboard and nobody out in a 1-0 game.

Barry is humming to the tune of Grand Funk Railroad at this hour. He is Slouching Toward Cooperstown. The national hardball pariah has only two homers since May 8 and at this rate he may still be stalking Henry Aaron in August and September. Bonds's struggles come at a good time for the Red Sox. Thus far at Fenway, he has a mere single with two walks (both intentional), zero RBIs, and a strikeout.

Matsuzaka intentionally walked Bonds in the first inning. It was a no-brainer. First base was empty with two outs. Folks back home in Japan were no doubt disappointed, but it would have been the same thing had Dice-K been facing Sadaharu Oh back in the day.

Barry had gotten a fat pitch when he faced Matsuzaka in the fourth. As he did Friday night, Barry ripped it far -- and foul. Then he went out on a routine fly to right.

Fast-forward to the sixth. This was Barry's chance to beat the Red Sox and Dice-K at Fenway on Fox TV. But Dice-K got ahead, 1 and 2, then retired Barry on a grounder to the right side of second base. It would have been a double play, but the Bonds shift put shortstop Alex Cora on the right side of second and there was nobody to cover the bag.

"I felt that I wanted to challenge him, but overall I was just careful not to make any mispitches that he could get solid contact on," said Matsuzaka. "I've faced many great batters, but he certainly emitted a great aura about him. That's rare to see even among those great hitters."

Bengie Molina lined to short for the second out, then Dice-K hit Nate Schierholtz on the shoulder to load the bases.

Veteran Rich Aurilia worked the count to 3 and 2, but was caught looking at a pitch pretty clearly outside. Aurilia was not happy and he had good reason. But the shutout was preserved.

Dice-K got the side in order in the seventh, fanning Dave Roberts (born in Okinawa, by the way) with his 112th and final pitch. It's not easy leaving in the middle of the shutout, and Dice-K said, "I felt I could have gone a little bit longer in the game," but this is not the Japanese High School tournament, in which Dice-K threw 250 pitches in a single game.

Dice-K termed this his "best performance."

And so he is spared. He'll hear none of the negativity that Rick Pitino once cited as a trademark of our town. The celebrated rookie is 8-5, Barry has been held at bay, and the Red Sox are still comfortably ahead of the Yankees. Life is good.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy @globe.com.

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