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Too much, too soon for Dice-K

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 23, 2009 11:59 AM

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In 4 2/3 innings, he threw 98 pitches. Looks like Daisuke Matsuzaka is in midseason form, eh?

And so the World Baseball Classic is officially over now, at least in Boston, where the Red Sox have fulfilled their obligation to the rest of the world. (Think globally, act locally.) Japan will face Korea tonight in the championship game at Dodger Stadium, where Matsuzaka will be watching from the dugout after pitching Japan to a 9-4 win over the United States in the semifinals last night.

Now the real question:

How much is this going to hurt the Red Sox in September and, perhaps, October?

"It’s just the way it is," Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters in Belichickian fashion this morning when asked about Matsuzaka’s workload during the WBC. "You hope during the season you don’t pay the price for that."

Let’s be honest here, fellow Americans: The WBC isn’t about us and it never was. From the beginning, Bud Selig’s dream was to take baseball internationally, to become the Abner Doubleday of the Netherlands, South Africa, and Italy. No one disputes the notion that the players seem to be approaching these games with considerable passion, but the large majority of us tonight will know far more about fictional rebel Jack Bauer than we will about Korea pitcher Jung Bong.

As far as the Red Sox are concerned, the WBC was beyond a nuisance. Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis got nicked up, as Francona might say, and Matsuzaka threw 16 more pitches last night than he did in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series last October. The Red Sox clearly aren’t too thrilled about all of this, particularly given the fact that they committed an average of roughly $17 million a year to get Matsuzaka in the first place.

"We have a couple of different ideas for him when he gets back, and then we’ll kind of go from there," Francona said. "He didn’t have a regular schedule. He has kind of a weekly schedule. It’s not the way we would escalate it on a normal progression. As soon as he gets back, we’ll sit with him and try to figure out the best way to determine how to go."

Overreacting, you say? Maybe yes, maybe no. Matsuzaka now has been with the Sox for two full seasons and won 33 games, suggesting his big league career is off to a glorious start. At the same time, Matsuzaka last year pitched fewer innings than any starter in history to win at least 18 games, and he faded badly as a rookie during the second half of a 2007 campaign in which he appeared to be running on fumes in September and October.

Know what that means? It means Matsuzaka has a brief history of burning out early in his big league career. Last year, Matsuzaka was on the disabled list for much of June. Since Sept. 1, 2007, Matsuzaka has averaged fewer than six innings per start, a startlingly low number for someone who has been among the major league leaders in victories over the last two years.

And now his 2009 campaign has started about a month early, only heightening concerns about him entering the season.

With regard to this Red Sox team, we all know how important the pitching is. We also know that the Red Sox already have more than their share of health-related questions. (We are not including Pedroia and Youkilis.) As deep and talented as the Boston pitching staff appears to be -- at least on paper -- innings in the starting rotation are still a worry. Josh Beckett is coming of a season filled with nagging ailments. Tim Wakefield is 42. Brad Penny had shoulder weakness before throwing even a game and John Smoltz isn’t expected to pitch a big league game for at least another two months. If the Sox rely as much on Jon Lester this year as they did last, it will be an indication that they have encountered more problems along the way.

All of this brings us back to Matsuzaka, whose workload was a concern even before the WBC, if only for the fact that the Red Sox need to get more from him, not less. Matsuzaka is just 28. Of the 88 major league pitchers to qualify for the ERA title last season, Matsuzaka ranked 83d in innings, ahead of only Jason Marquis, Brandon Backe, Manny Parra, Ian Snell and John Lackey, the last of whom averaged nearly seven innings a start compared to Matsuzaka’s 5 2/3.

Now, with more than a week remaining in March, Matsuzaka is already tossing 98 pitches in 4 2/3 innings of tournament play.

If that doesn’t make you a little nervous, it should.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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