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Sharp turns

Wakefield, Matsuzaka look to put injuries behind them

Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell (left) already likes what he has seen this spring from Daisuke Matsuzaka. Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell (left) already likes what he has seen this spring from Daisuke Matsuzaka. (Steve Nesius/Reuters)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 6, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - The Red Sox spent the winter unsure of what to expect from Tim Wakefield, the 43-year-old righthander having had surgery in October to repair a herniated disk in his back. His place in the rotation vanished.

There was only optimism for Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was said to be getting into the best shape of his career after a 2009 season truncated by assorted injuries and bouts of miscommunication with the organization. His renewed commitment was a constant theme.

But it was Wakefield who threw two scoreless innings against the Minnesota Twins at Hammond Stadium yesterday, continuing what has been a surprisingly strong early spring. He allowed one hit, an infield single, and threw 16 of his 21 pitches for strikes.

“I felt really good today,’’ Wakefield said. “It felt like my timing was there, rhythm was good. I was able to throw a lot of strikes and get outs quickly. I’m very pleased.’’

Nine miles away and a few hours earlier, Matsuzaka was taken out of his Red Sox logo bubble wrap just long enough to throw 51 pitches at City of Palms Park. But only the final 10 came with bullpen catcher Mani Martinez squatting behind the plate. The first 20 came with Martinez stand ing and the next 21 with him kneeling.

As he recovers from what was described two weeks ago as a mild back strain, Matsuzaka is not expected to pitch in an exhibition game for another 7-10 days and will almost certainly open the season on the disabled list. Wakefield’s prediction that he would find a way into the rotation appears, while far from assured, at least a distinct possibility.

Wakefield came out of the bullpen in the third inning yesterday to face Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Michael Cuddyer. Four pitches took care of the two All-Stars as Mauer grounded out and Morneau flew out. Cuddyer reached on an infield single before Jim Thome flew to right.

The next inning was more of the same, a popup and two grounders to third base.

“Today was the first day I’ve actually thrown pitches, sat down, and went back out,’’ Wakefield said. “Everything felt fine. Just glad to get the first one out of the way and get ready for the season.

“Obviously this is a test, but I’ve been telling everybody that I feel fine.’’

Wakefield had not faced hitters since Sept. 30, when he hobbled through three innings against Toronto, the back pain obvious as he struggled just to walk back to the dugout. Now he is able to treat spring training like he always has.

“It’s a big difference. I have my strength back on my front side now,’’ Wakefield said. “Right now it’s just building strength in my legs. Not that they’re weak, but it’s a matter of getting your pitch count up and getting your arm stretched out for five, six, seven innings and getting ready for the start of the season.’’

Manager Terry Francona said in January that he expected Wakefield to start slowly in spring training. But his oldest player has been dependable from the first day.

“There’s no reason for him not to pitch,’’ Francona said before the game.

As Wakefield presses on, Matsuzaka is being held back. Burned last season by Matsuzaka hiding injuries, the Red Sox are taking methodical steps to make sure he is sound this time.

Matsuzaka arrived in Florida weighing less but with a sore back, and the Red Sox shut him down for a week. In the 11 days since, Matsuzaka has been throwing daily, the intensity increased by small percentages each day. He will throw his first standard bullpen session tomorrow then build up to throwing batting practice.

“We’re not putting any time frame on this. We’re certainly factoring in Daisuke’s feedback and his thoughts on how he’s progressing through this. So we’re not pinned to a calendar,’’ pitching coach John Farrell said. “We’re listening to his body and how he’s recovering from that. At this point, everything has been very encouraging.’’

No date has been chosen for his first exhibition game. A good guess for his first regular-season game might be late April, given that Matsuzaka will need at least 25 innings to build stamina.

“I think whatever has happened is really ultimately my responsibility,’’ Matsuzaka said. “It might be the case that I won’t be ready quite for Opening Day, but my goal is always to be as ready as quickly as possible.’’

Farrell has seen enough in Matsuzaka’s limited time on the mound to compare the results to what the Red Sox received in 2008, when the righthander had a 2.90 ERA and won 18 games. Matsuzaka readily agreed.

“I might be even better, in a better spot than I was back then,’’ he said.

But for now, Matsuzaka is chasing Wakefield, and the old guy is sprinting ahead.

“I’m just getting ready for the season,’’ Wakefield said. “It’s a long haul.’’

Amalie Benjamin of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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