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Bob Ryan

With Matsuzaka, long time coming

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 22, 2009
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Just for fun, why not start the game with the bases loaded?

Dice-K's back.

And why not just give the leadoff man - whoever it is, since Jose Reyes is injured again - a 3-2 count?

Dice-K's back.

Tell the babysitter you might be a little late.

Dice-K's back.

Last seen in a major league game April 14, Daisuke Matsuzaka will be on the Fenway Park mound when the Mets arrive tonight for the start of a three-game interleague series.

He's been MIA for a month to get his right shoulder strengthened. He has made two starts for the Red Sox this season.

One was bad. The other was sad.

He gave up nine hits, four earned runs, three home runs, and three walks in 5 1/3 innings against the Rays April 9. Five days later he had a truly horrific first inning at Oakland, giving up five hits and five earned runs and walking two. The Red Sox wisely decided to shut him down and get him started on a rehab program, the results of which we will see (to whatever degree) this evening.

So, if you're Terry Francona, a.k.a. The Skipper, are you curious? Are you excited? What?

"Probably a little of both," Francona said. "Losing any [starting] pitcher is not a lot of fun. But I am excited because if his shoulder is strengthened, regardless of what we see [tonight] - and I hope he's great - if he's strong, he's a very good pitcher."

Is, or can be? That is the real question. He was a very in-and-out 15-12 his first year. He had enough stuff to strike out 201. But he also had enough rocky spots to have a 4.40 ERA and to surrender 25 home runs. There were many shaky outings.

Last year he was, to say the least, an unusual 18-game winner. Yes, he had the 18 W's, but no starting pitcher in the 20th or 21st centuries has won 18 while throwing so few innings - 167 2/3. Really, now. Even in this day and age, where the concept of what constitutes a superior pitching performance has been so drastically altered, does a man who cannot average six innings per start deserve to go 18-3?

Dice-K is a good major league pitcher. But he has his own way of doing things, refusing to give into hitters at any time. Whatever the Japanese word for "nibbler" happens to be, that's Dice-K. He runs up high, early pitch counts, and it's a rare game when he answers the bell for the seventh. They're usually happy when he can get out there for the sixth.

Meanwhile, just in time for Dice-K's return, Tom Verducci of SI.com has dusted off a fascinating study he first published April 21. He took a look at the four most prominent pre-Matsuzaka Japanese starters who emigrated to these shores: Hideki Irabu, Kaz Ishii, Hideo Nomo, and Masato Yoshii. What he found was that there was a frightening and irreversible drop-off in performance in Year 3 for three of them and a noticeable drop in performance for the fourth (Nomo).

This is, of course, Year 3 for Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The prevailing theory is that Japanese pitchers are worked way too hard by American standards before they get here and thus burn out far quicker than their American counterparts.

Dice-K was a Japanese legend who had some legendary outings, including a 250-pitch game in high school and a 189-pitch game on Opening Day in 2003. He had thrown a lot of innings before he arrived here at age 26 in 2007.

But what most concerns the Red Sox this year was the time spent with the Japanese team in the World Baseball Classic. They would have much preferred him to skip it and report directly to Fort Myers, Fla., but that was, of course, totally out of the question, and the Red Sox fully understand this.

Don't think Theo Epstein didn't do his homework. He's fully aware of the Verducci premise.

"As for Tom's interesting study," Epstein said, "I don't think much weight should be placed on the fact that four other Japanese pitchers struggled in their third season in the States; that seems more like a coincidence. Rather, in projecting a pitcher's health outlook, we try to incorporate several factors: condition of the shoulder and elbow, health history, arm action, delivery, workload, etc."

He might also have cited age. Dice-K was only 26 when the Red Sox signed him to that six-year contract. Ages of the other four when they came to America: Nomo, also 26; Ishii, 28; Irabu, 28; and Yoshii, 33.

The Red Sox have been pretty careful with Dice-K's workload, there is no question about that. The most pitches he has thrown as a member of the Red Sox is 129 in seven innings of a 2-0 loss to Oakland in 2007. He only went over 120 twice more that year (124 in a complete-game conquest of the Tigers May 14 and 126 in a 2-1 victory over the Padres June 22). Last year his high was 118 in an 11-8 victory over Kansas City on May 22. Classic Dice-K: he went 5 2/3 innings.

He drives the fans crazy and he amuses the media, but the skipper won't bite when it is suggested he is a nightly adventure. Among Dice-K's great accomplishments last year was to have batters go 0 for 14 in bases-loaded situations. In other words, Dice-K getteth into pickles, and Dice-K squirmeth out of them.

Francona is a patient man to begin with, and he has learned how to live with Dice-K's peculiar M.O.

"You can say, 'OK, pound the strike zone, and he could give up three home runs,' " Francona pointed out. "Maybe it's better to let him walk the bases loaded and then get them out."

That may sound like a throwaway line, but I think he really meant it.

Dice-K was a very interesting pitcher last year, with a spectacular innings (167 2/3)/hits (128) count and a worrisome walk total (94). You can't say he's not good, but you can hardly say it's a comfortable night for the Red Sox when he takes the mound, either.

Mound drama will engulf Fenway Park tonight.

Dice-K's back.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com.

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