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Jackie MacMullan

Walk on wild side for Matsuzaka

The strange, mystical adventures of Daisuke Matsuzaka continue.

Japan's megastar, who was anointed as a favorite son in this foreign town because of his array of mesmerizing pitches, his tantalizing potential, and his role as one of the X factors in negating the surging New York Yankees, remains impossible to predict.

Last night, he was alternately brilliant and vexing, mowing down the Chicago White Sox as if they were minor leaguers, then suddenly handing out free passes aboard the Fenway base paths with a string of perplexing walks.

In the end, he gave up but two measly hits -- both singles -- yet still went home on the wrong end of another anemic Red Sox defeat, 4-2.

You'd like to say he deserved better, but as any pitcher will tell you, when you walk batters, it always comes back to haunt you. Matsuzaka gave up six walks, his career high in the majors. The fact he matched that total with six strikeouts was of little solace.

"I think there was a very slim difference between what was a good pitch and an ineffective pitch," he said through an interpreter.

Long after his work ended, Dice-K uncharacteristically remained in his workout clothes, slumping dejectedly at his locker, staring down at the carpet. He punched the wall lightly with his left fist as he got up to face the Boston media.

It would be a valid point to lament the lack of offensive clout behind him. The Red Sox scratched out 11 hits, but all were singles. Their power outage continues, and their pitchers, who are used to generous run support, are feeling the brunt of it.

Yet, ultimately, Dice-K was a victim of his own inability to pinpoint his control.

"The difference tonight was repeating a consistent release point," explained pitching coach John Farrell.

To call this outing frustrating would be an understatement. After all, this day began with the wondrous news that the Yankees had finally dropped one to the Toronto Blue Jays. Matsuzaka had the opportunity to step up and stop the bleeding of a suddenly ineffective starting rotation, the way Pedro Martínez used to do when his team began stumbling.

But first, Matsuzaka and Chicago starter Javier Vazquez were forced to wait out a rain delay that lasted 1 hour 56 minutes. When the first pitch was finally thrown at 9:01, Dice-K and his White Sox counterpart had been in limbo for a baseball eternity.

"I didn't feel that had any particular effect," said the pitcher. "I felt my stuff was OK today. I just wasn't able to control it very well."

Dice-K started the game by coaxing Jerry Owens into a ground out to second, then striking out countryman Tadahito Iguchi, who batted .395 against him in Japan.

But, just as it appeared Matsuzaka was en route to an economical first inning, his location went awry. He walked Jim Thome on five pitches, then did the same with Paul Konerko on eight.

Dice-K then ran up a full count on A.J. Pierzynski before Chicago's confident catcher punched a single to right and brought in the game's first run.

Matsuzaka escaped the inning without further damage, but as he ambled off the mound, he had already thrown 32 pitches.

At first glance, such a weighty workload in just one inning did not bode well for the pitcher or his ball club. The Red Sox, still smarting from losing two of three to the lowly Kansas City Royals, needed a consistent outing from their righthander with the Whitman's Sampler of pitches.

That repertoire had been decent enough to eke out a win last Saturday over Toronto, yet Matsuzaka's numbers over his past two starts had been decidedly pedestrian. He had given up 10 runs in 11 innings (a bloated 8.18 ERA) and coughed up five home run balls. This was in direct contrast to the previous six starts, in which he had posted a 3-2 mark with a 1.29 ERA.

Boston needed more of those numbers, and after his uneven first inning, Matsuzaka provided them. Over the next four innings, he retired 13 of 14 batters, with outfielder Jermaine Dye's walk in the fourth the lone blemish.

Matsuzaka dominated by mixing his pitches wisely, using his slider, his curve, and, when he was looking for the strikeout, his fastball, which was consistently clocked at 93-94 miles per hour. After he punched out Juan Uribe to close out the fifth, he was cruising, pitching a one-hit gem.

But just as quickly as his control returned, it abandoned Matsuzaka again in the sixth. He surrendered back-to-back-to-back walks to Iguchi, Thome, and Konerko, loading the bases with nobody out, and suddenly placing his fine performance in serious jeopardy.

He worked the count to 1-2 on Pierzynski, then appeared to deliver the knockout blow with a nifty pitch on the outside corner. But plate umpire Tim McClelland looked the other way. No Dice(K). On the next offering, Pierzynski sent a sharp liner past the diving Youkilis at first, delivering two runs and forcing Matsuzaka out of the game. He left having thrown 109 pitches, 63 of them strikes.

"A questionable call on a 1-2 pitch leads to a two-run single," Farrell observed.

That's the kind of night it was for Boston.

It was undoubtedly one of the more frustrating evenings of Dice-K's season, and yet another educational experience in his adjustment to American baseball.

Farrell said he and Matsuzaka continue to tweak his routine between starts, and that he had instructed the rookie to skip his bullpen session this time around. Dice-K, who is used to a far more stringent workload than he's handled here in the States, conceded he is also not used to pitching on four days' rest, but dismissed suggestions it has affected his performance.

In spite of his control issues, he impressed the other Sox team with his versatility and velocity.

"He's got good stuff, real good stuff," observed Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen.

The stuff only counts when it's in or around the strike zone. Matsuzaka said last night he won't get too anxious about his preparation between starts.

He shouldn't. His world -- his season -- is a work in progress, and the Red Sox are as intrigued as anyone to see where it takes him next.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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