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Dan Shaughnessy

Dice-K's loss not all bad

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / May 23, 2009
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This was one of those nights when you have to think long term. Big picture.

Johan Santana and the Mets beat the Red Sox, 5-3. Daisuke Matsuzaka picked up the loss, giving up four runs in five innings.

But still it was a good night for Dice-K. A good night for the Red Sox. Matsuzaka is back and he did not need three hours or 120 pitches to get through five frames.

"We were very encouraged with his outing," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "The ball was coming out of his hand good. 'Encouraging' doesn't give you a win, but long term it looks good."

"I think my pitches were the best of all my recent starts, including my rehab starts," said Matsuzaka, who had not pitched a major league game since April 14 because of a shoulder strain.

As always, he spoke through an interpreter, Masa Hoshino, but I'm wondering if perhaps Dice-K's English is better than we think. Or maybe Hoshino is reading him stuff from the Globe sports pages. Dice-K threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of 22 batters. His 80 pitches in five innings represents the fewest he has thrown in a major league game in which he lasted at least five innings.

It also screamed, "Take that, Bob Ryan!"

Our man Bob yesterday submitted that they should just start the game with the bases loaded or perhaps start the game with a 3-2 count on the leadoff batter.

Instead, Matsuzaka fanned Mets leadoff man Daniel Murphy on a 2-2 pitch, and got out of the first inning 1-2-3 on 12 pitches, nine of which were strikes.

The only damage in those first three frames was a first-pitch homer off the AAA ("Membership for Life") sign in the second by Gary Sheffield, a man who has homered 501 other times. Matsuzaka threw only 35 pitches in the first three innings. He threw only seven pitches in the third.

"Today, [pitching coach] John Farrell told me he didn't think the hitters would be as aggres sive, so I could go with first-pitch strikes," said Matsuzaka. "That was an ideal situation."

Things started to unravel in the fourth - a 30-pitch inning for the Dice Man. Carlos Beltran hit a ground-rule double to right, then scored on a single to center by David Wright after Sheffield walked. Omir Santos scored Sheffield with a two-out single to left. Then came the first 3-2 count of the night, and Ramon Martinez drilled a single to center. This prompted a visit from Farrell and some stirring in the bullpen. Matsuzaka got out of the inning but trailed, 4-1. In fairness, he could have gotten out of the inning with little damage if Julio Lugo had been able to turn a double play on a grounder to second by Jeremy Reed.

"Lugie got flat-footed," said Francona. "There wasn't enough on the throw."

"The moment the ball was hit, I thought 'double play ball,' " said Matsuzaka. "It didn't work. That was just the flow of the game, and after that I couldn't hold it and that is what I'm disappointed about."

"Daisuke is real competitive," Francona noted. "He likes the big stage. He just loses the plate from time to time . . . He eliminates pitches as he goes and stays with his strengths. It's such a repertoire. When he first got here, [Jason Varitek] needed two hands."

In any event, Dice-K is back. He managed to lower his ERA from 12.79 to 10.32. He gave us a hint that he can be back as the No. 3 starter in the Red Sox' rotation. This is good news for the Nation. Bad news for the World (Baseball Classic).

The Sox are certain that Dice-K strained his pitching shoulder while he was carrying Japan to its second consecutive World Baseball Classic championship. This is something akin to losing Kevin Garnett as he pulls a muscle winning the NBA slam dunk contest. Francona was asked if he was "at peace" with the damage done by the WBC.

"I pushed it aside," answered the manager. "I don't know about 'making my peace with it.' I think it's cool Daisuke cares so much about pitching for his country. It's a great concept and a cool idea. But we're trying to get ready for a long season. Yeah, it's a little frustrating. I don't know if I want to place the blame on the tournament or a country. We try to be careful so that our pitchers are productive."

Translation: You can take your WBC trophy and drop it into the middle of Lake Quinsigamond.

Some would submit that you could do the same thing with interleague play.

Let's face it, the concept has lost a lot of its luster. In the days before cable television there was mystery about the "other league." It was a big deal to watch Willie Mays and Juan Marichal in the All-Star Game and to see Sandy Koufax pitching in Yankee Stadium in October. Now we see Albert Pujols just about every time we flick on "SportsCenter."

"Interleague play," Dustin Pedroia said to no one in particular as he sat in the dugout late yesterday afternoon. "What a circus."

It brought the Mets and the sparkling Santana to Fenway. It resulted in a series-opening loss for the Red Sox. But this one might look like a win two or three months from now. It was a good indication that Dice-K is back.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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