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A retro fit for Matsuzaka

Working with Valentine has translated well so far

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 21, 2012
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - When you mention Daisuke Matsuzaka to the general public, you usually get a roll of the eyes followed by flip and negative comments. But that is 180 degrees from how Bobby Valentine feels about him.

When you bring up Matsuzaka, the Red Sox manager gets excited about the prospect of adding a pitcher of that quality.

Although Matsuzaka declined after winning 33 games in his first two seasons in Boston, some of the issues that arose weren’t all his fault. There were other forces at play, and Valentine pointed that out last season in his role as an ESPN commentator. He was critical of the Red Sox for changing him so dramatically from the pitcher he was in Japan.

He had no mound presence. His confidence was shot. The communication between him and pitching coaches John Farrell and Curt Young seemed nonexistent or one-way. Matsuzaka retreated into his own little cocoon.

Valentine, who managed the Chibe Lotte Marines in Japan for six seasons - and often saw Matsuzaka as an opponent - believes he can turn around the righthander when he returns from Tommy John surgery, probably in late May.

And Matsuzaka feels much better about the future as he enters the final year of his contract.

“The biggest difference I think with Bobby is he knew me when I was in Japan and he knew how I pitched when I was at my best,’’ Matsuzaka said through interpreter Jeff Cutler. “So having him see that and having him see me now - when I’m not at my best and when I’m still working on my mechanics and trying to get back to my best - it’s good to know that someone is familiar with the differences in those areas.

“In that way, I’m very lucky.’’

Valentine has taken quite an interest in Matsuzaka. He has made certain that Matsuzaka is no longer on his own program, and that he is supervised. While he used to long toss on his own, now there is a coach watching everything, and Valentine gets regular updates.

Valentine doesn’t speak fluent Japanese, but he can communicate in the language, and that makes a huge difference to Matsuzaka.

Valentine offers pointers based on what he remembers of him as a successful pitcher. While Valentine never thought of Matsuzaka as dominant, he remembers him as a competitive pitcher who never gave in to a batter and didn’t nibble at the corners the way Matsuzaka has been wont to do the last couple of years.

He remembers a pitcher who was almost Josh Beckett-like in Japan, in that he was tough on the mound.

Matsuzaka never had seven pitches, as some advertised, but he did have three or four very good ones.

He was never a power pitcher, but one who knew how to set up hitters, work the count, and go after a hitter’s weakness.

“It’s definitely comforting to be able to speak and talk about Japan, and what goes on over there,’’ Matsuzaka said. “The little conversations we have on a daily basis are very comforting. I feel like someone knows about where I’m from and the way things are done.’’

As for the suggestion that the Theo Epstein/Terry Francona/Farrell regime didn’t do a good job with Matsuzaka in that they tried to change too many things about his routine, Matsuzaka took the high road.

“It wasn’t really the Red Sox trying to change me, it was more myself trying to make adjustments to adapt myself to the game over here,’’ he said. “It’s more myself trying to make those adjustments.’’

Valentine has urged Matsuzaka to be more like the pitcher he was in Japan, to use his entire repertoire and pitch the way he feels most comfortable. He feels Matsuzaka could give the team a shot in the arm when he returns.

“At this point, I’d like to keep it simple,’’ Matsuzaka said. “I have no intentions of adding to my repertoire. I just want to keep the ones I have pitching well.’’

Matsuzaka, who will earn $10 million in the final season of his five-year deal, was asked whether his relationship with Valentine could mean he stays in Boston beyond this year.

“My family enjoys Boston, they love it there,’’ he said. “That would be the ideal situation, but before I can talk about staying long term I have to prove that I belong to stay here. I have to pitch to the level that’s expected in Boston.

“I’d like to get myself to that stage first and then start thinking about the long term. With it being my last season on my contract, I’d like to do everything I can to get myself into a situation to contribute with the limited time that I have.’’

His early batting-practice sessions have been eye-popping. You can tell there’s something different about the way he’s throwing. There’s an electricity to his stuff again.

“I haven’t felt this good in a long time,’’ Matsuzaka said. “It’s a very positive thing.’’

The Sox medical staff does not want to rush Matsuzaka, but there might be a slight acceleration, given how well he has bounced back. It shouldn’t be long before he is pitching in a minor league game.

“I don’t think I’m ahead of schedule,’’ he said. “I’m just following the program the Red Sox have set for me. I’m not trying to rush things or make things go quicker. I need to make sure I do each step right.’’

Matsuzaka has spent a lot of time in Fort Myers. As soon as he had the surgery last July, he was sent down to the minor league complex. He was allowed to return to Japan once, but otherwise has been in a supervised rehab program, and it seems to have paid off.

Asked if he were sick of Fort Myers, he said, “Not really. For an injured player rehabbing, you can’t ask for a better place. It’s warm, the weather is great, you couldn’t ask for a better place to be. My goal is to be in Boston soon.’’

And Valentine seems all for that.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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