THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

No ifs about it: He was on a roll

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / September 16, 2009

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“We need to reserve some excitement,’’ Terry Francona said during his daily afternoon media briefing.

You know, if.

If, oh, let’s just say for the sake of argument, Daisuke Matsuzaka, who had not faced a major league batter since June 19, looked like a big-time major league pitcher. If, for the sake of argument, he would, oh let’s get crazy, take a no-hitter into the fifth. If, bear with me now, he might throw six shutout innings against the team currently sitting second in the American League in runs.

So, sure, if Daisuke Matsuzaka would pitch a game like that, then the manager wanted to make sure he didn’t overract, didn’t start to fantasize, didn’t start drooling all over himself at the thought of a fourth quality starter to help take the team through these last few weeks and into the playoffs.

Because if, if, if, if, if Daisuke Matsuzaka would do something like that, it would be very hard to restrain himself, even if it only happened to be one game.

Time to call the bluff. Here is Dice-K’s line in last night’s 4-1 victory over the AL West-leading Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim:

IP 6, H 3, R 0, ER 0, BB 3, K 5

Maybe these guys know what they’re doing, after all.

Daisuke Matsuzaka wasn’t merely bad during his previous eight starts in the 2009 season; he was spectacularly awful. He was unsightly. He was inefficient. He was an embarrassment to himself and the organization. He had a 1-5 record with the accompanying baggage of an 8.23 ERA and a WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched) of 2.20, which figures out to more than - more than - 18 baserunners per nine innings.

It was not major league pitching, and after yet another brutal outing, this one against the Braves (eight hits and six earned runs in four innings), the brass decided they had seen enough, which is why the only way you were going to see Matsuzaka pitch during the past 87 days was if you went to such locales as Fort Myers, Salem (Va.), Portland (Maine), and Pawtucket.

The idea, we were told, was to make him stronger, specifically in the shoulder area. We were also told he had not really reported in good shape following the World Baseball Classic, and that if he was going to be of any long-term benefit to the Red Sox organization he would have to follow this program - or else.

“Down in Florida, we kind of thought there were some things he needed to take care of,’’ said Francona. “He came back in very good shape. His shoulder is strong. Long-term, it’s very important. Short-term, it gives us a shot in the arm, also.’’

Every once in a while the rest of us would hear something about him, and it wasn’t always good. Was he really unhappy? Well, maybe. Or maybe not. Some of his rehab outings were pretty bad. But they gradually got better, and last week he was targeted for a return to major league action, so here he was, for better or worse, trying to fulfill a need, and a rather serious need, for a good starter at the back of the rotation.

The first batter was the pesky Chone Figgins, and after Matsuzaka got him 0-and-2, he walked him, and right away the crowd of 37,942 was thinking, “Great, same old Dice-K.’’ But after stealing second base, that’s as far as the speedy third baseman would get, for Dice-K went 3-1, 7, and 6-3 to Maicer Izturis, Bobby Abreu, and Vladimir Guerrero, and the Great Adventure had begun.

He was Dice-K, which means he was unlike anyone else. Pitching from behind on the count doesn’t faze him, any more than pitching ahead of the count emboldens him. First-pitch strike, no first-pitch strike, it didn’t matter. He was in charge, continually coming up with the right pitch for the occasion.

“He had a good fastball and cutter, especially to a right-hand batter,’’ observed the Angels’ Torii Hunter. “He pitched well enough to win. He pitched very well for someone who hadn’t faced big league hitters since June 19.’’

The zeros mounted. Three up, three down in the second. Just a harmless walk to Figgins in the third. Three up, three down in the fourth. Upstairs in the press box, the no-hit pool was alive and well. And there was plenty of legitimate tension to spice things up, because John Lackey was matching the zeros.

Kendry Morales broke up the no-hit bid with a solid leadoff single to right in the fifth. Dice-K paused to receive the obligatory hand from the crowd and went back to work.

Erick Aybar singled with one out and then stole second to give the Angels men on second and third. Here was the first test for the new Dice-K, and he aced the exam, throwing 91-m.p.h. fastballs past Jeff Mathis and Figgins to get out of the inning.

A juicy subplot was part of the evening’s fun. It was a game called “Watch The Falling ERA.’’ With each out, the ERA would drop, of course, and by the time Dice-K’s work was completed, he had knocked his stratospheric ERA down from 8.23 to 7.02. Not exactly vintage Pedro, but a fine whittling job nevertheless.

With that strikeout of Figgins to end the fifth, it meant he would enter the sixth inning for only the third time this season. Abreu doubled with one away, but Matsuzaka got Vladimir Guerrero looking (not many people can make that claim) and then got a bit of a break when Hunter’s well-struck liner went directly to the safe harbor of Mike Lowell’s glove.

The skipper indulged Matsuzaka with a chance to pitch the seventh, but after going ahead of Morales, 0-and-2, he lost him and Francona wisely called a halt to the outing. Dice-K exited to his first standing ovation of the season, first removing and then briefly waving his cap. He entered the dugout for multiple back-pats and high-fives, and why not? He had exceeded expectations, to say the least.

“Now,’’ inquired Francona, “can he come back next start, and not match the numbers, but be the same pitcher?’’

For the time being, it is a startling and welcome performance by a man whose plunge from the penthouse to the outhouse had pretty much made him a footnote around here. Now? Heed the skipper. Reserve your excitement. Oh, heck, do what you want to do.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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