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Rays 4, Red Sox 3

Rays have the edge on Matsuzaka, Sox

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By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / April 10, 2009
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The Red Sox accepted Daisuke Matsuzaka's inefficiency last season because it consistently created victories, a worthy sacrifice for a tired bullpen and teeth-shorn fingernails. If an allergy to strikes and a penchant for drama were what Matsuzaka needed, fine. "Sometimes," manager Terry Francona said, "you just need to stay out of the way and be happy for what you have."

There is no room for happiness, though, when Matsuzaka cannot summon effectiveness out of his high-wire act. In his maiden start of the season, a 4-3 Red Sox loss to the Tampa Bay Rays yesterday, Matsuzaka shed the wrong half of his equation. He crammed the bases full of runners, and, this being Matsuzaka, something funny happened. Some of them scored.

Beaten only three times last season, Matsuzaka is 0-1 after one start, his typically effective wildness replaced by plain old wildness. All four runs he allowed scored on three home runs, more than he allowed in any game last year; he allowed only 12 long balls all season. He fired 100 pitches and allowed 12 base runners over 5 1/3 innings.

The Red Sox almost overcame a 4-0 deficit and a 4-2 hole in the ninth. Jason Varitek blasted a home run into the visitors' bullpen off Troy Percival. David Ortiz walked with two outs. Kevin Youkilis launched a fly ball to center, high and deep enough to hope, but eventually swallowed by the triangle. And so the Red Sox boarded their plane to Anaheim, Calif., the same way they concluded last season: oppressed by Matt Garza and beaten in a series by the Rays.

"They've got a good team, we've got a good team," right fielder J.D. Drew said. "We understood it was going to come down to pitching and defense. That's what it seemed to do."

The Red Sox hoped Matsuzaka would become a different version of himself, one who averages more than 5 2/3 innings per start and doesn't walk an average of five batters per nine innings. They could watch Matsuzaka walk the bases loaded and almost feel good about it. But they'd rather see him throw a few pitches past the sixth inning.

Matsuzaka, too, hopes to alter his reputation as a nibbler. He wants to pitch deeper into games and rely more on his defense. "Not being able to go so deep is stressful both for myself and the team," he said.

While sudden homers were his undoing yesterday, he still allowed more than one base runner per inning.

"Sometimes when there are base runners, you start pitching towards the game and also not giving in," Francona said. "So maybe sometimes one thing can lead to another."

So perhaps the constant pressure of dealing with base runners diminished Matsuzaka's pitches. "Above all else," Matsuzaka said, "I didn't have any life on the fastball."

Matt Joyce, Evan Longoria, and Shawn Riggans each exploited it. Longoria, Matsuzaka's primary tormentor, went 3 for 3, ripping a double to left and blasting a two-run home run over the Green Monster. Including playoffs, Longoria is 5 for 9 against Matsuzaka with two home runs.

As he did in Game 7 of last year's American League Championship Series, Garza overpowered the Sox with four different pitches, the most effective a power curve and a mid-90s darting fastball. He didn't match his dominance from last October, when he two-hit the Sox over seven-plus innings. But he came close, allowing a run over seven innings on four hits and three walks.

"When he settles in," Dustin Pedroia said, "he's got some of the best stuff in the major leagues."

Even while Matsuzaka slogged and Garza cruised, the Red Sox remained within passing distance. Matsuzaka provided his usual theatrics near the end of his workday, leaving the bases loaded in the fifth when Riggans popped to shortstop.

The Sox chipped away. Jason Bay tripled to the triangle to drive in Youkilis in the sixth. Mike Lowell's double two innings later scored Youkilis again. The Red Sox had reason for hope when Percival emerged from the Rays' bullpen in the ninth. Varitek's leadoff home run provided more.

With one out, Pedroia thought he continued the rally when he laced a ball to the left side of the infield. Longoria took a step to his left and whipped his glove hand like a hockey goalie. "I don't know if he saw it go in his glove," Pedroia said. "I kind of saw him catch it. He was kind of surprised."

Ortiz walked, bringing Youkilis plateward as the winning run. Perhaps no hitter has had a better first week - Youkilis was 8 for 11 when he came up. He smashed a pitch to center. Francona jumped up the top steps of the dugout, but he knew. "No," he said. "He didn't get all of it."

"I did square it up," Youkilis said. "I just got under it."

The ball settled into Gabe Kapler's glove shy of the 420-foot mark. Youkilis, who had rounded first, kicked some dirt, looked skyward, and walked back to the dugout. He and the Red Sox could only wait for another chance at the Rays, this series portending another year packed with tension. The Rays had 14 runs and 26 hits, the Sox 10 and 24. One game separated them last year, and the margin seemingly hasn't changed.

"They're a good team," Francona said. "We'd like to think we are. It will be a long, interesting season."

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com.

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