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Taking Matsuzaka for a spin

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  February 19, 2010 03:34 AM

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300dicek.jpgFORT MYERS, Fla. -- The saga of Daisuke Matsuzaka keeps spinning, sort of like that mythical gyro ball that we've never seen.

The latest offering from Matsuzaka is an upper back, ah, condition. Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino yesterday that he "wouldn't go so far as to call it an injury" and that it's "just a little bit of fatigue" from his rigorous off-season training work, part of his plan to tone up and atone for a disastrous 2009.

This time, let's hope Matsuzaka is telling the truth when he downplays a physical ailment, because so much about him has proven to be exaggerated.

The gyro ball is just a small part of the legend of Matsuzaka that followed him from Japan after the Red Sox bid $51.1 million just for the right to talk to the righthander, billed as a cross between Pedro Martinez and Michael Jordan, and spent another $52 million over six seasons to sign him. Just like that chimerical pitch, Matsuzaka hasn't lived up to the hyperbolic hype since joining the Sox in 2007.

How could he have?

Entering his fourth season with the Sox, we know that pitching in the American League East instead of the Far East has shown that the 26-year-old Matsuzaka is not Martinez, and he's not the comic book superhero/cultural icon he was hurling for the Seibu Lions. His starts are painful to watch at times as he piles up triple-digit pitch counts with an inveterate aversion to pitching to contact and he treats the basepaths like a rush-hour commuter rail train -- all aboard.

But don't give up on Daisuke. He might be a cause for concern, but he's far from a lost cause. Matsuzaka is the No. 4 starter on this staff, behind three guys who all have someone in baseball willing to call them an ace -- Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey.

Evaluating him is simply a matter of perspective, a matter of lowering the atmospheric expectations that followed him over from Japan. He is not an ace in America, and most likely never will be, and that's OK because he is still an effective pitcher when healthy, as evidenced by his final four starts last season (3-1, 2.22 ERA). It's almost an insult to a pitcher of Matsuzaka's considerable talent to simply assume that he can't be counted on at all and that anything the Sox get from him this season is a bonus based on one lost season.

Coming to grips with his status in the States has proven more difficult for Matsuzaka than griping a different baseball. However, it seems that Matsuzaka finally realizes things are different in Boston.

Perhaps humbled by a nightmarish 2009 that saw him go 4-6 with a 5.76 ERA and miss nearly three months for re-conditioning, Matsuzaka has been a lot more cooperative when it comes to communicating with the team about his injuries and about following their pitching regimen instead of his own.

Matsuzaka, who hid a groin injury that pre-dated his participation in the World Baseball Classic from the team last year, admitted yesterday in his first spring training meeting with the Sox media that in the past he would have tried to push through the upper back ailment that has temporarily halted his spring training.

"But I definitely don't want to make the same mistakes that were made last year, so right now I think it's important to talk about my condition and share that with the team in as much detail as possible," said Matsuzaka, through Hoshino.

When Matsuzka was asked what his goal is for this season it was telling.

"I want to be able to be the type of player that the team can rely on," he said.

That clearly wasn't the case last season, when he made just 12 starts and you needed the Golden Gate Bridge to span the communication gap between Matsuzaka and the team, which went beyond any type of language barrier. It was a trust issue.

Reliability in terms of taking the ball hasn't been an issue for Matsuzaka, at least during the regular season, since he started pitching in major league baseball. We're not talking about handing the ball to Abe Alvarez or Kason Gabbard here. Matsuzaka is a proven winner in the big leagues. He's just not the force of nature we were led to believe.

In his rookie season of 2007, Matsuzaka, who worked on a six-man rotation in Japan, started a career-high 32 games. He went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA and struck out 201 batters in 204.2 innings. This staff's de facto ace, Beckett, has never recorded 200 strikeouts in a season.

In 2008, Matsuzaka started 29 games, a figure he reached only once in Japan, and went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. Matsuzaka started off 8-0 that year and ended it with the lowest hits per 9 innings in the majors (6.8). He went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA.

Wins for a pitcher are the most overrated statistic in baseball -- just look at reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke -- but there are not 18-game winners waiting to be plucked off a bar stool at Game On!.

Matsuzaka is similar to the sporty, gray Ford Mustang he was packing up yesterday -- very nice, but not the best model the class has to offer.

If Red Sox fans are OK with that, then they should enjoy the ride with Matsuzaka this season.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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