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You wonder when it’ll start to pay off

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 6, 2010

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Don’t get me wrong.

It’s not that Daisuke Matsuzaka is a lousy, good-for-nothing scoundrel. He’s not that bad. Problem is, he should be better than he is.

As frustrating as he was to watch in his first two seasons, he won 33 games. You can’t argue with that. But last year was a washout, mostly because of injuries, and this year he’s had two stints on the disabled list, one for a neck strain, one for a forearm strain. You never know if he’s hurt or not hurt, pitching well or poorly. There’s always something going on with him.

He’s certainly pitched some good games this season, give him credit for that. Last night ended his streak of six starts allowing three runs or fewer. Fact is, he’s a good pitcher with good stuff. But it’s Year 4 and the Red Sox, who executed a posting bid of $51 million to gain his services and then paid him another $52 million over six years, expected he’d be a top-of-the-rotation starter by now.

Instead he’s regressed. He’s now an end-of-the-rotation starter, which is fine when everyone is healthy on this team. The Red Sox can afford to overpay him. But when he’s asked to be the third or fourth starter, good luck with that. He’s now 9-9 in his last 23 starts.

There are always issues.

Let’s put aside the 5-1 lead he lost to the Rays last night. In the sixth inning, with the Sox up two, he put the first two batters on. Jason Bartlett bunted toward the left side. Matsuzaka bounced off the mound, but looked to make a play at third when there was nobody covering. Both third baseman Adrian Beltre and catcher Kevin Cash screamed for Matsuzaka to throw to first, but according to Dice-K, “the voices were lost in the crowd.’’ Very poetic, but what?

“Right off the bat, it was my intention to make a play at third,’’ said Matsuzaka through his interpreter. “Just the way, just how hard the ball was hit, I thought I had a play at third.’’

When it happened, you tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. You figured Beltre and Cash should have directed him to throw to a certain base right away, but didn’t. Turns out they did.

“We just have to go to first base, we’ve got to take the out,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “Beltre was right behind him. We’re just set up to take the out at first.’’

Did Matsuzaka not know what to do?

“He knew that,’’ Francona said. “Sometimes the game gets going fast and you glance to third. The play was just to take the out.’’ The manager later said, “the bunt ended up being a huge play.’’

Sure was.

With the bases loaded, John Jaso singled in two runs to tie the score. The 5-1 lead had vanished, and so did Matsuzaka.

He’d thrown 112 pitches in five-plus innings. He threw 30 in the first, though he allowed only one run. In Matsuzaka’s 11 starts this year, he’s allowed 16 hits, 16 walks, and 15 earned runs in the first inning. Pitching coach John Farrell has tried to figure out how to prevent the early buildup of pitches that costs Matsuzaka at the end of his outing.

Last night, they even tried to move up his warm-ups closer to game time so there would be a “cooling off period between the warm-ups and the start of the game,’’ Farrell said. That’s the way Matsuzaka did it in Japan and it worked.

When asked about the first-inning woes, the pitcher said, “I’m the only one with the answer to that.’’

Farrell believes if they can get Matsuzaka away from these troublesome first innings, he’ll settle in and pitch deeper. Last night, he retired the side in order in the second, then put the first two on in the third before retiring the next three. He got the side in order in the fourth. In the fifth, he retired the first batter but then allowed a pair of singles to Ben Zobrist and Carl Crawford before Evan Longoria hit a sacrifice fly to make it 5-2. A bloop double by Willy Aybar followed, and a passed ball by Cash accounted for the third run. There was a mix-up. Cash thought he was getting a slider and Matsuzaka threw a cutter. Very frustrating.

“I thought that in the second inning I might be able to get into more of a groove, but I wasn’t able to build on that or take advantage of any momentum,’’ Matsuzaka said.

“As he does sometimes, he battled with his command,’’ Francona said. “And once he found it, he was actually pretty good. The sixth was a tough inning. Through all that, the bunt winds up being a big out. When they’re trying to give you an out and you don’t take it, not getting that turned out to be huge.’’

These are big games against division rivals. If the Red Sox are to survive the injury infestation, the pitching has to be superb.

As a player who was brought here to be among the elite in baseball, Matsuzaka keeps falling way short of that. Remember the excitement when the Red Sox landed him?

The drama of the Scott Boras-led negotiations? When you look at it now, you wonder what all the fuss was about. Matsuzaka is a good major league pitcher. But special like the entire baseball world thought he’d be? Far from it.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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