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They need Dice-K, and more

By Nick Cafardo
June 10, 2012
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After watching the Nationals the last two days, and Daisuke Matsuzaka on Saturday, it’s abundantly clear: The Red Sox need a No. 1 starter, or someone close to that caliber, if the 2012 season is going to matter.

It’s not that we’re drawing any conclusions about Matsuzaka after he made his first start following a yearlong absence because of Tommy John surgery, or because Daniel Bard is a train wreck, or because Jon Lester has not been the ace we expected.

It’s just that when you watch the Nationals throw Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann (Sunday), you realize it is indeed about pitching.

The Red Sox will have a plethora of players (Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross, etc.) to deal when Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford return. By the trading deadline, the Sox will have plenty of chips if they want to get the American League East battle-tested Matt Garza, or take a chance on someone like Zack Greinke being able to handle the Boston market.

It has not always been clear what they need to get for Youkilis, but it’s becoming clearer as time goes on. They need another starting pitcher. The Sox are hoping the answers lie within.

Matsuzaka, in the final year of his six-year deal, looked devastating at times Saturday, with eight strikeouts over a five-inning stint.

The problem was he allowed four runs, three in the fourth inning when he walked leadoff hitter Bryce Harper on four pitches, his only free pass. And the Sox couldn’t do a thing against Gonzalez, the second consecutive All-Star-caliber pitcher they have faced.

“I didn’t like the four runs or the four straight balls he threw to Harper. Other than that, I liked what I saw,’’ said manager Bobby Valentine. “He threw strikes with all of his pitches, moving balls both ways. [Kelly] Shoppach thought it was OK. It was usable. Eight strikeouts in five innings. That’s pretty good.’’

In his first outing, there were a lot of things that looked the same, and some that looked different.

“Yes, I did feel nervous,’’ Matsuzaka said through interpreter Jeff Cutler. “Leading up to the start when Bobby first told me, I got a little nervous. I felt nervous in the bullpen. Probably the most nervous I’ve felt in my time in Boston.’’

Matsuzaka, who was coming off his second rehab stint after straining his right trapezius, surrendered a leadoff homer to right in the second inning to former Red Sox first baseman Adam LaRoche.

Matsuzaka started the game by striking out Steve Lombardozzi on four pitches, and also struck out Ryan Zimmerman in a 1-2-3 first inning. Following LaRoche’s homer, he got the next three batters in the second. And the third inning looked like the first, a 1-2-3 with two strikeouts.

But the fourth was the killer.

After Harper’s walk, Matsuzaka didn’t get any help on a hard ground ball by Zimmerman just to the right of shortstop Mike Aviles, who couldn’t come up with it. Although Aviles has been terrific, this was a prime example why Jose Iglesias is a pitcher’s best friend.

Iglesias, who is on the disabled list at Pawtucket, would have fielded that grounder and got at least the force at second, and possibly started a double play. Instead, Matsuzaka had to rear back to strike out LaRoche, but then allowed a ground-rule double to Michael Morse, scoring one run, and a single to Ian Desmond, which plated a pair.

Further damage was prevented when Adrian Gonzalez made a nice sliding catch in right, and doubled up Desmond at first with help from Dustin Pedroia. And in the fifth, Matsuzaka allowed a ground-rule double to Rick Ankiel, but finished strong.

His line: 5 innings, 5 hits, 4 runs, 1 walk, 8 strikeouts. Would you have liked Bard’s replacement to have fared better? Of course.

“Every time you pitch you want to give your team a chance to win,’’ said Matsuzaka. “Losing today was disappointing, but there were some positive things to look forward to in my next start. I definitely pitched better than I did in my rehab starts.’’

But the four runs should not have been a death knell for the Red Sox. Washington led, 4-0, after four, plenty of time for the Sox’ offense to respond. But except for two runs in the seventh, they did not.

One thing that didn’t change was Matsuzaka got his pitch count up in a hurry, even with only one walk. He went deep into counts with a lot of batters. Yet his stuff was electric at times. He showed a good changeup and curveball. His fastball was around 92 miles per hour, but he had good movement.

There were mistakes. The LaRoche homer. The ground-rule double by Morse. But there were encouraging signs, as well. Matsuzaka had the ability to put hitters away, and often did.

The problem is this: Going forward, is Matsuzaka someone you can depend on?

And if the answer is uncertain, the Sox have to obtain a starting pitcher that can give them quality every time out, because Matsuzaka and Bard can’t.

It’s yet another step in this perpetual work in progress.

They’ve had to overcome injuries to their lineup, rough starts by their top three, a failed fifth starter experiment. And now, as they begin to get star players back, they have to figure out what their second-half starting rotation is going to look like.

While Matsuzaka is added to the mix, Valentine acknowledged that Franklin Morales (three innings, no hits, three strikeouts) is being stretched out because he throws 95 m.p.h. and has the stuff to be a pretty good starting pitcher if the Sox need him down the road.

That may be the case.

It’s a sign the Sox are missing something. They’re missing another big-time starting pitcher.

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

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