Righthander's outing right out of left field
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Where did that come from?
Terry Francona would gladly have taken the usual five-inning, two-run, zillion-pitch performance from Daisuke Matsuzaka. So would every Red Sox fan.
But as the New York State Lottery says, "You never know." But this is why we love and value Sport, as opposed to Entertainment. There's no script, no playlist. It's a new scenario every time. No two baseball games have ever been played in the same sequence of events, and none ever will. Players may be predictable to a point, but there's always that fascinating element of the unknown. You never know when someone will go from bad to mediocre, from mediocre to good, from good to very good, or from very good to great.
Last night, Daisuke Matsuzaka was great.
Last night, Daisuke Matsuzaka carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning and a two-hitter into the eighth. He pitched seven shutout innings for only the fourth time this season. He left behind a little bit of a mess in the eighth (two on, none out), but he was picked up nicely by Hideki Okajima, young Justin Masterson, and, of course, Jonathan Papelbon and was thus the deserving winning pitcher as the Red Sox opened the American League Championship Series with a very tense and exciting 2-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.
What a weird, contradictory year it has been for the Japanese righthander. He won 18 games and lost only three and he led the league in opponents' batting average (lowest, that is, at .211) and was third in ERA (2.90). But he benefited from a generous run support and he led the league in walks (94). He barely qualified for the ERA rankings because those 18 wins were achieved in a paltry 167 2/3 innings, a shockingly low workload for someone with that many victories.
The Baseball Gods were smiling on him. There is no other way to put it.
His start against the Angels in Game 2 of the Division Series was standard
The first inning last night was the Japanese version of Deja Vu All Over Again. Matsuzaka walked leadoff man Akinori Iwamura on five pitches, and that was the beginning of a harrowing frame in which he would likewise walk Carlos Peña and Carl Crawford, which brought up veteran DH Cliff Floyd with the bases loaded and two outs.
Here, however, Dice-K was strangely at peace. For during his wacky regular season, he somehow managed to get the bases loaded 14 times without once surrendering a hit. This may not be on a par with Jim Palmer's career achievement of never surrendering a grand slam, but it's one amazing statistical oddity.
So here was the cagey Mr. Floyd at the plate with the bases loaded. Would Dice-K's savvy, good fortune, or whatever it is when the sacks are filled continue? Yup. Floyd tapped meekly to second. Dice-K and the Red Sox were out of the inning. It had taken him 27 pitches to get through the inning, so it certainly looked as if he was heading for yet another one of those annoyingly abbreviated outings.
Not this time.
This time Daisuke Matsuzaka figured it out. This time Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched like the great performer he had been in Japan. He came out with a 1-2-3 second inning, got out of the third on a double play, and now he was locked in.
Daisuke Matsuzaka actually had a single-digit inning, retiring the side on nine pitches in the fourth. Daisuke Matsuzaka got through the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings, in fact, on 30 pitches. It can't happen, but it did. Daisuke Matsuzaka walked his last man in the third, which means he faced his final 17 batters without walking anyone. Walking? He only went to three balls twice in that stretch, retiring Evan Longoria on a green-lighted fly to right in the sixth and striking out Gabe Gross on a 3-2 pitch in the seventh.
"As he got into the middle of the game, he threw the ball really well," said Francona. "And the ball had a lot of life in the strike zone."
"He threw the ball really well, starting with the second inning," agreed Rays skipper Joe Maddon.
You can't start thinking about a no-no too early, but Dice-K has been pretty tough to hit this year, and when he got out of the fifth, you had to start thinking about a possible Francona decision should he enter, say, the eighth with a shaky 1-0 lead. (The Sox had broken through against James Shields with a run in the fifth.) Dice-K cruised through the sixth unscathed, but the no-hit drama was ended very quickly in the seventh when Crawford led off with a solid single to right. And when Floyd dropped one into left-center, the Rays had men on first and third with no one out in a 1-0 game.
But that's the way it stayed, as Dice-K, notoriously stingy with men on base, worked his way out of the spot. Dioner Navarro lofted the ball to left, but it was too shallow for the fleet Crawford to risk trying for home. This is when Dice-K got Gross on the aforementioned 3-2 pitch. That brought up shortstop Jason Bartlett, who hit into a 6-4 force play. Once again, Dice-K had left 'em stranded.
"He gives himself a lot of opportunities," joked Francona. "But he always uses all his pitches. Even in tough situations, the hitter can't sit on one pitch."
There is no way to exaggerate how important this victory was to the Red Sox, who had won only a single game in this building during the regular season, and had lost six one-run and two two-run games to this team. Shields pitched very well too, but Dice-K was better. There was no reason for anyone to expect Daisuke Matsuzaka to pitch like this in such an important game.
But, see, you never know.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.