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Royals 4, Red Sox 3

Royals walk all over Matsuzaka

Free passes keep Sox a step behind

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 28, 2010

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It was just, well, blah.

It felt like a game after a very good road trip where the Red Sox took care of some of baseball’s best clubs. It felt like the old letdown game, where the offense lacked oomph after the team got into town at 4:35 a.m. yesterday. It felt like one of those bad Daisuke Matsuzaka games where he walked the ballpark — eight in all — as he suffered a letdown after pitching an eight-inning one-hitter in Philadelphia.

It felt like — and it was — all of those things.

As poor as Matsuzaka pitched, he only allowed three runs in a 4-3 loss to the Royals last night that ended Boston’s five-game winning streak. All in all, the 37,940 at Fenway Park looked pretty bored.

Sox players left the clubhouse quickly after the game, likely deprived of sleep and trying to put the loss behind them as quickly as possible. The Sox went through a 13-game stretch against the Tigers, Yankees, Twins, Phillies, and Rays in which they’d won nine times and rejuvenated their season.

One loss to the Royals likely will not ruin that momentum, at least they hope it doesn’t.

“We’re sitting on the edge of our seats with the seat belt on,’’ manager Terry Francona said, describing Matsuzaka’s night. “He wiggles out of one inning and came pretty close the next inning. It’s a hard way to pitch successfully.’’

The Red Sox, who dropped to 9-8 in one-run games, pulled within a run in the sixth inning, but were shut down by the Royals’ bullpen after starter Brian Bannister pitched six effective innings and beat the Red Sox for the first time in five career starts. The Royals, who lead the majors with a .280 batting average, were held to four hits, but they made them count while taking all the walks Matsuzaka had in him.

The Japanese righthander has become the ultimate box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

He got his pitch count up — 112 over 4 2/3 innings — the same number he had vs. the Phillies.

The fact he didn’t give up more runs was a minor miracle. For a while it appeared Matsuzaka might toy with the Royals, who are trying to turn their season around with new manager Ned Yost. In the fourth, for example, he loaded the bases with nobody out. Matsuzaka hit all of the major food groups — he walked David DeJesus, allowed a single to Billy Butler, and hit Jose Guillen with a pitch.

But no mess is too big for Matsuzaka to clean up. A couple of line outs to the infield and a fly to center got him out of the inning unscathed.

He was not as fortunate in the fifth.

Not showing the first-pitch command he had vs. the Phillies Saturday night, Matsuzaka walked No. 9 hitter Chris Getz, who stole second. After Scott Podsednik struck out, Mike Aviles walked and DeJesus singled to deliver Getz, tying the score at 1-1.

The inning didn’t end there. Matsuzaka walked Butler to load the bases and Guillen to force in Aviles, giving KC a 2-1 lead.

A wild pitch with Alberto Callaspo at the plate scored the third Royals run. After Callaspo grounded to third baseman Adrian Beltre, who threw home for the force, Matsuzaka walked Mitch Maier. That was all Francona could take. He yanked Matsuzaka for Joe Nelson, who retired Jason Kendall to end the inning.

“Joe comes in and gives us a big out,’’ said Francona. “Any time you go to the bullpen that early, somebody’s got to do something good or else it gets out of whack.’’

The length of the outing matched Matsuzaka’s season lows from his first start May 1, when he allowed seven earned runs in a 7-4 loss to the Orioles, and a May 17th no-decision against the Yankees, who got him for nine hits and seven earned runs.

Whenever it looks like he’s about to turn the corner, the boogeyman appears.

“He didn’t have great command with his fastball tonight, but he was powerful again, which I think is a good sign,’’ said catcher Jason Varitek.

Sox starters had lasted six or more innings in seven of their last eight games before last night and were 7-1 with a 1.60 ERA with 43 strikeouts and 22 walks while holding opponents to a .191 average in those games.

The Sox, who hit the ball well and in timely fashion during their terrific stretch of nine wins in 13 games, had difficulty with Bannister. They got on the board in the fourth when their hottest hitter — Beltre — singled in Kevin Youkilis, who had singled with one out.

J.D. Drew also reached on an odd play — a ball that hit umpire Paul Schrieber. The ball seemed to be going to second baseman Getz, who likely would have turned a double play. Unfortunately for the Royals, it put runners at first and second and set the stage for Beltre’s RBI hit.

Bill Hall, playing center field, homered to the Monster seats to lead off the fifth, cutting Boston’s deficit to 3-2.

Nelson got the first two outs of the sixth before Aviles reached on an infield hit to deep shortstop and scored on DeJesus’s double off the wall, which Jeremy Hermida misplayed. Varitek closed the gap to 4-3 with a double off the wall to score Drew, who had singled for his third hit of the game.

With the short outing by Matsuzaka, the Sox were forced to go deep into their bullpen — Manny Delcarmen pitched two scoreless innings and Ramon Ramirez pitched a solid ninth.

“That’s a good team over there,’’ said Varitek, who was called out on a close play at first (replays showed he was safe) in the third that could have led to a scoring opportunity, as Marco Scutaro singled with two outs. “Give them some credit. They kept us down. We were one run short and their pitching was the reason for that.’’

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