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Good economical indicators

Matsuzaka hurls a tidy five innings, 75 pitches

By Tony Massarotti
Globe Staff / March 31, 2009
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KISSIMMEE, Fla. - In the paradoxical world of Daisuke Matsuzaka, first is last and last is first. Spring training is both an aperitif and a nightcap, and success is often undistinguishable from failure.

But then, what else to expect from a man who in 2008 pitched fewer innings than any starter in history who won 18 games?

In between the World Baseball Classic and the 2009 major league season, Matsuzaka actually pitched a 2009 spring training game in Florida yesterday - both his first and his last. Matsuzaka allowed just one earned run in five innings of eventual 4-3 Red Sox loss to the Atlanta Braves, averaging the 15 pitches per inning that most major league pitchers strive for.

Only with him could the relatively ordinary be such a cause for celebration.

"I'm impressed myself that I got through five innings," Matsuzaka said with a somewhat mischievous grin.

Said pitching coach John Farrell, "Seventy-five pitches through five innings was ideally what we were hoping to get to."

So there you have it. Matsuzaka's spring in Florida was, in a word, ideal.

And now it is over, too.

Internationally regarded as a man who has done more for the WBC than Don King - two tournaments, two MVPs for the undisputed champ - Matsuzaka now has one preseason outing remaining, April 4 against the Mets at Citi Field in New York. After that, it's on to Fenway for his regular-season debut against the Tampa Bay Rays April 9. By then, Matsuzaka will have pitched in Tokyo, San Diego, Los Angeles, Kissimmee, New York, and Boston, after which the Red Sox will travel back to the West Coast.

His projected opponent there: Oakland.

Talk about time travel.

What will the Red Sox get from Matsuzaka along the way? Impossible to say. Even Farrell acknowledges that the impact of the WBC may not be known for some time, though the good news is that Matsuzaka looks stronger and thicker than he did during his first two years in Boston.

"I don't know if you ever get a true read on that until you get into the season," Farrell said when asked if Matsuzaka is beyond any effects of the WBC. "Our [other] starters have been here since Day 1 in camp. They've gotten a regular five-day routine with the usual physical peaks and valleys they're going to go through.

"Time will tell on that one. Most importantly, he threw the ball free and easy. There [were] no physical ailments of any kind. It will be good for him to get back with us on a regular basis and get back to a routine.

"Even by our objective testing, he's come into camp this spring with better percentages, whether it's body composition, overall strengthening. He's strong. If we didn't have that data, we wouldn't comment on it as positively as we do. Part of it is [Matsuzaka] learning what the physical needs are here in the States as we go."

Indeed, over each of Matsuzaka's first two seasons, durability has been something of an issue. He pitched 224 1/3 innings in 2007 - regular season and postseason - but he had a 3.56 ERA in his first 170 innings, a 6.63 ERA in his final 54 1/3. The Matsuzaka of 2008 posted a 2.90 ERA in 167 2/3 innings during the regular season, but the number ballooned to 4.50 in 16 innings thereafter.

As a result, the Red Sox are continuing to preach pitch efficiency. That would allow Matsuzaka to get deeper into games, and it might also keep him fresher in the long run.

Asked yesterday what he believed to be his chief responsibility on this staff, Matsuzaka sidestepped the question with an obvious fallback: health.

"Last year, I wasn't able to pitch through the entire year," Matsuzaka said. "This year, I want to take care of myself real well and hold my place in the rotation all year."

What the Red Sox would like to see is for Matsuzaka to make things a little easier on himself, something he would accomplish by inducing ground balls with his two-seam fastball and "pitching to contact," as Farrell put it. At the same time, the Red Sox recognize that only Brandon Webb (40), C.C. Sabathia (36), and Roy Halladay (36) have won more games than Matsuzaka (33) over the last two seasons, which further complicates the issue.

Yesterday, for instance, Matsuzaka generally kept the game moving, which was a good sign. At the same time, he walked Chipper Jones after jumping ahead on the count, 0-and-2, a maddening tendency he shows against lefthanded hitters. (Jones, a switch hitter, was batting from the left side.) In a nearly identical number of plate appearances against them, Matsuzaka has walked lefties (13.9 percent) almost twice as much as righties (7.9 percent) despite the arsenal to combat both.

"I don't think we're asking for drastic changes. He's very aware," said Farrell. "What we've encouraged is outs earlier in the count."

"The one thing we've seen toward the end of last year and again in the WBC is the use of his changeup a little more.

"He used it sparingly [yesterday], and I think, overall, the addition of the two-seamer along with the changeup to attack lefthanded hitters - I think we might see that a little bit more this year rather than manage the lineup and pitch around tough lefthanders."

Against the Braves, the Sox caught their first real glimpse. Before they know it, Matsuzaka will be pitching again for real.

After all, as any Bostonian will tell you, spring in New England does not last long.

Tony Massarotti can be reached at tmassarotti@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti

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