New approach, pain not eased
On the subject of the 2009 Daisuke Matsuzaka, no one accurately can say, "It is what it is."
The truth is that no one knows what it's going to be, or when.
Yesterday he was an alternate version of the
But the Dice-K on display in the Sox' 6-3 loss to the Rangers at Fenway Park was a very different creature. For only the sixth time in 74 career Bosox starts (regular season and postseason), he walked nobody. He faced 27 batters and he only had three-ball counts on four of them. This is the man who issued 103 walks in 183 2/3 regular-season and postseason innings a year ago.
What they did was hit him. The Rangers had 10 of their 12 base knocks off Dice-K, including three doubles (all authoritative), a Nelson Cruz triple off the garage door in dead center, and a Michael Young homer into the Red Sox bullpen. This is the man who led all American League pitchers last year with an opponents' batting average of .211.
Then again, there were a lot of swings and misses, indicating that when Matsuzaka put the ball where he wanted, he was very effective. He struck out eight, and six of them were swinging.
It wasn't about stuff. He threw consistently from 92-94 miles per hour and he had a full variety of pitches, striking out people on fastballs, curves, and sliders. He also threw cutters and changeups.
Of course, in the major leagues it generally comes down to three things: location, location, and location.
"I thought he missed over the middle and up on a team that can really make you pay when you throw the ball in the middle," said Sox manager Terry Francona.
Amid the occasional rockets, there was actually a lot to like, starting with the fact that he was working uncommonly fast.
In the first inning I glanced away from the field after he threw a pitch and when I looked up he was already in his windup. In his two-plus years with the Red Sox I can guarantee you that's never happened before.
The flip side is that maybe working fast just isn't him. Working at his usual glacial pace last year, the most hits he gave up in any game was eight. And, oh yeah, he was 18-3.
Question: Was yesterday's 5 2/3-inning, 10-hit, 5-run, 8-strikeout, no-walk outing a step forward, a step backward, or a completely mystifying performance that leaves the Sox brass no better off than it was?
Catcher Jason Varitek was leaning toward the glass-half-full analysis. "I don't think Daisuke's far off," he declared. "He's still trying to figure himself out right now. He's getting himself into the season."
It is a season that began, regrettably (from a Red Sox point of view, not Japan's), with Dice-K again pitching his nation to victory in the World Baseball Classic. The Sox had little or no control over his preparation for that, and when the regular season began he was pretty much a mess, bottoming out with a disastrous start in Oakland during which he was touched for five hits and five runs in one inning. He was placed on the disabled list the next day to strengthen his shoulder, not to return until May 22.
His efforts since then have been, well, spotty, to be polite. He wasn't too, too bad in his comeback start against the Mets and Johan Santana, a somewhat encouraging performance since he managed to get through five innings with an economical (for him) 80 pitches. The Sox would be ecstatic if he ever could get to the point where he was averaging 16 pitches per inning.
But he reverted to more classic form in his next two starts, needing 102 pitches to get through five innings against the Twins and 96 to go another five last week against Detroit. The good news in that game was that he was able to extricate himself from enough jams to be the pitcher of record in a 5-1 Boston triumph.
There is a school of thought that says if the Sox are going to derive the maximum benefit of having Daisuke Matsuzaka in their uniform, they must acknowledge that he is Japanese, not American. In Japan he worked approximately once a week and was not subject to pitch counts. He just pitched. But that approach goes against all contemporary American theory and custom.
The Sox would say, look, we micro-managed him last year (167 2/3 regular-season innings) and he went 18-3, so we must have been doing something right. Critics could talk about his excellent run support and the Sox could counter with his aforementioned opponents' batting average. The truth is he probably wasn't 18-3 good, but he was pretty good, and they'd take that performance every year for the remainder of his six-year contract.
Somewhere in the midst of losing that game yesterday is the guy they want to see. In the course of his performance he had a good, live fastball and a ridiculous assortment of quality auxiliary pitches. But he made mistakes in location and the Rangers are a team that punishes pitchers who make those mistakes.
Dice-K being Dice-K, perhaps issuing zero walks was a bad thing. Last year's Matsuzaka simply didn't mind base runners. Walks, schmalks. He had his way of doing things, and he was successful. Don't forget rivals going that amazing 0 for 14 against him last season with the bases loaded.
"Sometimes when he's working behind on the count you see less runs than when he's working ahead," Francona pointed out. "It's a little hard to explain sometimes."
So I'm guessing the pitcher will be challenging fewer hitters when he takes to the mound Saturday night in Philadelphia. If he walks somebody, he walks somebody. He knows how to pitch from the stretch.
Everybody's going to need a little patience. Dice-K. Francona. John Farrell. Theo Epstein. Varitek. You. Me. Give him a little time. He'll get this thing calibrated.