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Braves 8, Red Sox 2

Lost from start

Matsuzaka digs hole, and Braves bury him

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / June 20, 2009
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When Daisuke Matsuzaka walked off the mound two batters into the fifth inning last night, he was walking away from a chance to prove to himself, to his teammates, and to his coaches and manager that he belonged in an overcrowded rotation.

As Matsuzaka acknowledged afterward through interpreter Masa Hoshino, “If I keep going like this, I have no right to be part of this rotation.’’

He added, “I can probably say that never before have I faced such a tough time period, but I also believe that it has to end sometime and I have to do what it takes.’’

He did not do that last night, leading to the Sox losing their second straight home game to a National League club. Upstaged by fellow Japanese national Kenshin Kawakami, Matsuzaka took the loss, 8-2, to the Braves in front of 37,703.

At the moment, Matsuzaka does not have a next scheduled start. John Smoltz is slated to go Thursday in Matsuzaka’s normal turn in the rotation. Pitching coach John Farrell said after the game, “I think until a determination comes from within, we haven’t announced a rotation beyond that.’’

“There’s certainly no imminent announcement, if that’s what you’re asking for,’’ Farrell added of what comes next for Matsuzaka. “But knowing how determined he is, knowing the work ethic that he has, he’s disappointed, I’m sure. But at the same time we can’t forget that this is a 33-game winner over the previous two years coming into this season. We certainly have some work to do. Consistency of strikes, particularly with his fastball, is the primary target. We’ll continue to work toward that.’’

Manager Terry Francona said that with Monday’s offday, the Sox have “the ability to be a little flexible in what we do going forward.’’ He also said that nothing is likely to be an nounced before Monday, prior to the team’s trip to Washington.

When Francona said before the game, “The best way is for him to pound the strike zone,’’ he probably wasn’t referring to what ensued in the first inning. The embattled Matsuzaka allowed three hits in his first four pitches.

“I couldn’t get strikes with either my fastball or my breaking balls, and I had a hard time hitting my locations with any of my pitches,’’ Matsuzaka said.

His first pitch was deposited into the visitors’ bullpen by Nate McLouth, a quick way to a one-run deficit. And it got worse. Two of the next three pitches resulted in a single by Yunel Escobar and a double by Chipper Jones. The boos began. It was at that point that Matsuzaka seemed to lose the strike zone entirely.

His next eight pitches were balls, to Brian McCann and Garret Anderson, forcing home a run. That left the Sox down, 2-0, with no outs and Justin Masterson warming up. But Matt Diaz gifted a strikeout to Matsuzaka and Casey Kotchman lined to Kevin Youkilis for an unassisted double play.

The problems continued with a two-out walk to Kelly Johnson in the fourth. At that point, the Sox were down just two. But McLouth followed with an RBI double and Escobar with an RBI single.

“When he did make mistakes on the plate, it seemingly was with fastballs that found the middle of the plate. That’s where the damage by the Braves came in,’’ Farrell said. “His subsequent walks later in the [first] inning probably are more of an indication of maybe pitching a little bit too fine and not fully trusting his stuff and pitching to contact.’’

The bottom line was Matsuzaka looked horrible. He lasted two batters into the fifth inning, but did nothing to prove he belongs in a rotation set to add Smoltz. Matsuzaka got 12 outs, allowed six runs on eight hits, and walked four.

“I’m sure it’s tough for anybody,’’ Francona said. “It looked like he was out there early and it looked like he wasn’t as confident as we’ve seen him. It’s not a lack of trying. He wants to pitch and we know that. Just got to keep fighting. This is a guy that has won a lot of games for us, even if it’s not always how you draw it up. It’s a lot of wins. We need to try to figure it out and do better.’’

Matsuzaka’s ERA ballooned to 8.23 and he has zero quality starts in eight tries, yet to last more than 5 2/3 innings in an appearance. Matsuzaka (1-5) has yielded fewer than four runs only twice in eight starts.

Before the game, Francona said, “As with all pitchers, if they pound the zone and they stay out of the middle, that’s a recipe for winning. That’s kind of what we’re hoping for. Consistency, repeating his delivery, all those kinds of things will lead to him having success.’’

After the game, he said, “They looked like they were hunting fastballs left over the plate.’’

Consecutive doubles to open the fifth knocked Matsuzaka out of the game, and when Masterson allowed a sacrifice fly (run charged to Matsuzaka), the Sox were down, 6-0, with just one hit to their credit.

Jason Bay had the hit, a double in the second inning, only the second for the Sox at that point in the span of two games. But Bay (homer No. 18) cleared everything in left, the Green Monster, probably Lansdowne Street, perhaps the Mass. Pike, for a two-run homer that cut the deficit to 6-2 in the sixth. The Sox, however, finished with just those two hits, and have had a mere three in their last 14 innings.

“Thank God for Jason Bay,’’ Dustin Pedroia said, “otherwise we’d have gotten no-hit.’’

Two hits wasn’t nearly enough, not with Matsuzaka’s difficulties. But last night seemed a culmination of sorts. Even Matsuzaka acknowledged this cannot go on. His struggles must end, and soon.

“I’ve had tough moments in the past, but each time I thought out and tried different ways to get through it,’’ Matsuzaka said. “Even if I couldn’t see the answer right away, often I was able to push myself to work my way out of it. This time I feel it’s taking way too much time to break through, so now might be the time where I need to reach out for some advice and some help.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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