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Matsuzaka thrown off schedule by sore upper back

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 18, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Coming off a year of injury timeouts, of frustration and exile in extended spring training, Daisuke Matsuzaka already has had a pause put on this year’s preparation. Having injured his upper back while training at Athletes’ Performance Institute, Matsuzaka was stopped after playing long toss Friday, and will not resume throwing at least until having his spring physical tomorrow.

Manager Terry Francona said the pitcher is “sore in his upper back on both sides from something he did at API.’’ That injury was first revealed on Tuesday, when Matsuzaka made mention of the issue to Japanese media.

“He played catch on Friday, and was thinking about throwing a pen and said he felt it a little bit in his mid-upper back and decided not to throw the pen,’’ general manager Theo Epstein said. “Our trainers took a look and we just decided, ‘Hey, let’s slow this down and do it conservatively.’

“Given what he went through last spring, trying to do too much too soon with the WBC [World Baseball Classic] - we’re two months away from needing his rotation spot anyway - so slow it down and let our doctors look at him. We don’t want to make something small into something big by trying to stay on a set schedule.’’

The Sox won’t need a fifth starter until April 18, based on the early-season days off.

Since Matsuzaka already was scheduled to head back to Boston for a few days for personal reasons, the Sox took the precaution of shutting him down for the time being. He will take his physical along with the other pitchers tomorrow.

The decision has set back his schedule slightly, given that he would have thrown with the other pitchers this week. He has not done so, and may be further delayed, depending on what doctors find during his physical. He also has not talked to the American media. He left the player development complex yesterday without speaking to reporters.

“I’m not a doctor, and I don’t want to get ahead of this thing,’’ said Epstein, “but if it’s a real mild strain like we think it is, then he’ll be able to have a normal spring training, but be delayed a bit at the start of camp.

“I don’t want to put a number of days behind that he will be, but he’ll be a little bit behind because while all of our guys are long-tossing and throwing pens now, he’s not going to do it.’’

But, sore back or not, it seems Matsuzaka was going to be dealt with differently this spring. Francona said the Sox already had decided to alter Matsuzaka’s preparation this spring, slowing it down, based on his trouble last season.

“Last year he revved up so quickly and we saw what happened,’’ said Francona. “I’ve probably used the word ‘gas in the tank’ with him more than once. That’s a big goal. ‘Slow’ is probably not the right word, but ‘patient’ maybe is a better word.’’

It was less than three months ago that the Sox finally discovered what was at the root of Matsuzaka’s unfortunate 2009 season, in which he started only 12 games. He had injured his groin before the World Baseball Classic, proceeded to play in the tournament, and didn’t let the Sox in on his health status until after the season. The Sox were frustrated and disappointed, as the communication between the sides continued to be troubled.

But it appears that, on this issue, Matsuzaka was forthcoming.

“It was good,’’ Epstein said. “He was open with us, full disclosure. As I said the other day, his attitude’s been great. He was very accepting when we told him we wanted to treat it conservatively, slow it down for a couple days until we get the doctors down here and get physicals.

“There’s been really good communication. I think everyone’s got the same goals. Going out and executing it is another matter, and we’re going to be a bit delayed here at the start of spring, but we don’t expect there to be any issues with his program or his preparation. I think we’re all on the same page.’’

In 2009, Matsuzaka’s groin injury prevented him from ever getting into condition to pitch. He was never quite right, and the results (and time away from a major league mound) reflected that. The team is committed to not repeating those difficulties.

“I think he’s done a terrific job,’’ Francona said. “Looks like he’s in great shape. He’s obviously spent a lot of time working at it, which is what we wanted. That part’s real good.

“We’ve come a long way as far as communicating how he feels and how we feel. So I think everybody’s on the same page on this one.’’

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

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