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Feeling his way

Matsuzaka has handle on job; work remains

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / September 30, 2008
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The baseball rolled across his fingertips, around his palm, and over his skin. He touched it, judging by weight and by feel, smooth hide and raised seams. Daisuke Matsuzaka knew the differences, had felt them every time he pulled his right arm back to throw. The baseball in Japan was smaller, lighter, fit in the hand in ways these new baseballs, these American baseballs, didn't.

He had felt it every time he touched the ball in his first season in the United States, jarring and uncomfortable each time, the dusty ash left over from the way the balls are prepared not fitting with the tacky feel he was used to, from sand used in Japan. He had learned to accept the feel by the end of last season, but it wasn't enough. To be the pitcher he wanted to be - the pitcher he was back in Japan - that would need to change.

"I just made sure that I had a ball around wherever I was, whether that was in the house or in the car driving back and forth from my workouts, even playing with my kid I used the baseball," Matsuzaka told the Globe, through translator Masa Hoshino, in a rare one-on-one interview. "For me it was important to touch the ball, sort of get a natural feel for how it slips off the hand, and be able to feel and manipulate the ball as I was able to do in Japan."

So it was different this year, when he arrived in spring training, and when he arrived in Boston. There was a fusion with the ball, a sense of what it would do and where it would go. It didn't always give Matsuzaka the needed control - witness the 94 walks in 167 2/3 innings - but it gave him what he needed to be his type of pitcher.

"The reason you can throw six pitches with control and movement is because you have feel for the baseball," said Bobby Valentine, former major league manager and now manager of Japan's Chiba Lotte Marines, by phone from Japan. "And when the ball lays in your fingers, the energy that's imparted from different parts of the baseball is going to make it go in different directions and different speeds."

Matsuzaka did that, and more. It might not have always been pretty. And, in fact, it was often messy. Messy and ugly and frustratingly slow. But Matsuzaka, in his second season in the major leagues, his second season facing the best of what baseball has to offer, his second season of the glitz and the glamour of the Red Sox, fashioned himself into a pitcher with Cy Young Award credentials. An underappreciated pitcher.

"A lot of people thought because of all the attention that was drawn to the posting figure, to the contract signed, to the success he had in Japan, there was this anticipation of being a 20-game winner every single year," Sox pitching coach John Farrell said. "I don't care how many innings you've pitched or how many innings people think you should have pitched, you can't take that away from him and what he's meant to our ball club."

He got his feel back. For the ball, and for baseball as he now knows it.

Impressive numbers

The numbers are stark. Matsuzaka won 18 games this season, with a 2.90 ERA. Those would normally be Cy Young quality if not for the incredible season from Cleveland's Cliff Lee.

But Matsuzaka's season has been quiet in some ways, overlooked in some ways. There is a type of agony in his starts, as well.

Over and over the game reached the fifth inning, and there was Matsuzaka, already with 100 pitches. He was ready to keep going, often with just three or fewer hits on his stat line. But his coaching staff is not so forgiving, which is why he barely qualifies for the ERA title (one inning pitched for every game played by the team).

"It's always been my mind-set that even if I allow runners on base, whether it's a hit or a walk or an error, as long as I don't let them score, that's OK," Matsuzaka said. "I've always felt that way. That hasn't changed since last year.

"As it's been pointed out, I know that pitch count is an issue for me. Even if I allow runners on base through hits or walks, I want to hold them, prevent them from scoring. But at the same time, I know I need to keep my pitch count down, and that's always been an ongoing area of improvement for me. In the games that I start, I'm aware that I'm putting strain on the bullpen at times, and I always feel guilty about that."

Just 12 starters since 1901 have amassed at least 18 wins with 200 innings or fewer in one season, though Matsuzaka would have had more than his current innings total had he not spent three weeks on the disabled list. Beyond even that, there are only three who have done it with ERAs less than 3.00. That would be Pedro Martínez, who won 20 games in 2002 with a 2.26 ERA in 199 1/3 innings, and Urban Shocker, who won 18 in 1927 for the Yankees, with a 2.84 ERA in 200 innings.

And now Matsuzaka, who will start Game 2 against the Angels Friday night.

"There are times when he doesn't want to give in to the hitter," Valentine said. "He wants to have the hitter get himself out if he will. If hitters don't bite and it comes down to the time of reckoning; the true time of reckoning is the bases loaded with a 3-2 count. What looks like trouble to some isn't trouble to others.

"He grew up being the guy who would pitch until the game ended, no matter what the pitch count."

High pitch counts

It all comes back to pitch count, doesn't it? Again and again, that's where the focus is regarding Matsuzaka. Not just for the observers, but for the pitcher as well.

He understands, better than anyone, how efficiency or lack thereof has affected his career in the US. Mostly because it has changed something that he considers fundamental to who he is as a pitcher. So fundamental that, while Matsuzaka brings it up on his own, catcher Jason Varitek refers questions back to his pitcher, and Farrell agrees to speak only in generalities.

"In Japan, to put it simply, I'd split the games into thirds," Matsuzaka said. "So the first inning to the third, the fourth to the sixth, and the seventh to the ninth, and I would take a different approach to each third of the game. Since I didn't worry about my pitch count, the question was more, how do I get through these three thirds, through these nine innings?

"That was how I approached the games, going all the way back to high school. But, like it or not, over here pitch count is enforced, so I need to change the way I approach the game."

It was a way of looking at the game that he had used for years, one that was bound up in his identity, one in which he felt comfortable and reassured. He wasn't restricted in his pitch counts in Japan and so, even as he threw enough pitches to give US pitching coaches migraines, he became accustomed to looking at entire games. That's dangerous here, where 130 pitches is extreme, as opposed to Japan, where he topped 140 pitches 40 times in 204 career starts.

"As a pitcher who tends to throw a lot of pitches, I'm in a situation now where I can't look at the entire game in the same way," Matsuzaka said. "It's not something I can do easily, to change my approach, but the environment I'm in demands it."

Varitek was first made aware of the approach in Vero Beach, Fla., back in spring training of 2007. Sudden rain washed out Matsuzaka's start, and the pitcher and catcher took to a batting cage to throw a simulated game. That was when he first peeked inside Matsuzaka's mind-set.

And since then, Varitek and Farrell have worked to get around an approach that, they believe, can be a burden for any pitcher.

"It's very difficult to go into a game as a starting pitcher and think about nine innings," Farrell said. "That's too much. That's too broad of a scope when your primary focus is on the one pitch you can execute at this time. So by breaking that down, making it a more manageable workload or more manageable challenge, in his mind, that's the way he does it.

"The one thing that we wanted to be cautious of, knowing this coming in, we wanted to be careful that by pacing yourself in the first three innings, you don't find yourself down [5-0 or 6-0]. So that was something that he was made aware of, some adjustment that he had to make because he was going up against different types of lineups when compared to the Japanese lineups because of the strength one through nine."

Matsuzaka is not there yet, his new thought process not fully formed, not perfect. It might not ever be. But he's working on it, figuring out how, exactly, to make it a part of him.

Plenty of pitches

The game was moments away. The first pitch was imminent. And Matsuzaka had a new pitch. Not just for the hitters, for Varitek, too.

"I'm like, all right, I'm out of fingers with you," Varitek said. "Let's figure out a way. We have to figure out a sign here, cause you use all your fingers with him. You have to go to six at that point. So we had to do that on the fly."

It was his shuuto, or two-seam fastball. Matsuzaka had started throwing it, and let Varitek know it was game-ready only at the last minute before a game near the end of the 2007 season. It has progressed since then, not to where Matsuzaka can use it at any time, but to where it has a specific purpose in his arsenal. He generally throws it for two reasons, to get out of jams with runners on base, and against hitters who have had particular success against him.

And he's needed it in those jams. Matsuzaka always seems to have men on base, too many, but that doesn't mean they come around to score. In the most telling example of his ability to squeak through, the pitcher has faced 18 plate appearances with the bases loaded this season. He has not allowed a hit.

So Matsuzaka added the two-seamer to the rest of his repertoire - a four-seam fastball, cutter, slider, changeup, curveball, and splitter. And, yes, that's seven pitches. Since then, Matsuzaka has all but abandoned his splitter and throws his curveball rarely.

That makes him not one pitcher, but two.

"Days when he doesn't feel as powerful, that's when we'll see him go to more breaking balls," Farrell said. "He has a rare ability to be two different types of pitchers, whether it's start to start, or even inside a game. So he's special in that way, he's very aware of himself, he's aware of the game situation. At the end, he's of one thought. That is to win.

"You've got to have confidence in all of your pitches, and your ability to execute those pitches. He pitches with a very free mind, and it's evident in his work. He's got a very structured framework of his workload, but how he chooses from that menu inside of that on a given day all goes back to how he feels."

So, in other words, when Plan A doesn't quite work, Matsuzaka has an entire Plan B.

Still developing

It was natural, given the culture in which he grew up, that Matsuzaka was hard on himself last season. It wasn't what was expected of him - a 15-12 record, with a 4.40 ERA. It wasn't what he expected of himself.

So he came back, worked on the weaknesses that had developed last season, a tendency to get stuck throwing fastballs and sliders, a deficiency pitching inside to righthanded batters, allowing far too many runners. There were changes, of course, as Matsuzaka used more of his repertoire, as he continued to develop.

That doesn't mean there isn't still far to go, no matter how good those numbers appear. Like when those walks mount, and runners fill the bases.

"He's trying to execute what he's doing and he misses," Varitek said. "He doesn't miss out of fear or out of tentativeness. Just misses. Has the guy set up for that pitch early in the count and he misses, it becomes a non-inviting pitch. The count gets to 3-2.

"Even when his pitch total gets up, he's done a much better [job] of it. He's taken steps. He's added an understanding of himself. So if that does happen, he doesn't panic, and that's key."

He'll get there, maybe, to a point where the frustration of his starts, seen in flashes this season, abates. Or maybe he won't. Maybe this is who he is, who he's always been, and this is how he'll have success. After all, he did win 18 games this season, more than anyone else on the Red Sox. More than Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. More than just about every pitcher in the major leagues. Only six pitchers won 18 or more games this season, other than Matsuzaka.

In his quick smile - the one Varitek compared to David Ortiz's and called "electric" - there is a greater comfort this year. His English has improved enough to understand a question or two without translation. His teammates appear to have accepted him wholeheartedly, as in success there is an easy type of camaraderie. And, most important to the Red Sox and to him, he has taken another step toward letting his teammates in on what was already apparent to everyone in Japan.

"He was born to pitch," Valentine said. "He's a pitching savant, a lot of people say here. He's the guy who pitched in the biggest high school games and pitched forever. He pitched at a very young age in the major leagues here. He takes the mound and he's a pitcher who has always expected to be a little better than the rest. Most of the time that's exactly what he's been."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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