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With Matsuzaka, truth is a roll of the dice

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 15, 2010 09:37 AM

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So now we have learned that Daisuke Matsuzaka had a groin injury, which makes perfect sense. This explains why Matsuzaka opened the season last year with a cotton-candy fastball, which is what you get when you look like you’ve spent the offseason eating nothing but bonbons.

The good news? At least now we know that Matsuzaka wasn’t lazy or complacent, unless this was all some well-orchestrated cover-up to minimize embarrassment. With Matsuzaka, who can tell anymore? But if Matsuzaka was indeed hurt, it just would have been nice if the Red Sox knew that long before he went out and threw batting practice in his first eight starts of the season, during which the Red Sox went 2-6 and Matsuzaka averaged just over four innings per start.

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Instead, Matsuzaka lost games and taxed the bullpen, meaning that he put the next day’s game in jeopardy, too.

"I think the one thing that we strive to do, and go to great lengths, is to put a player in the best position possible to have success," Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell told reporters prior to the annual Boston Baseball Writers dinner last night. "And that takes an openness on all parts to accomplish that."

In sports, we often focus on the physical feats more than the mental ones. But frequently, the latter opens the door for the former. Unquestionably, Matsuzaka is a proud, competitive and mentally tough man unafraid of either responsibility or the big stage. In this case, the backlash was that he made a foolish decision that put both him and, perhaps more importantly, his team at risk, something that is hard to defend.

Yes, we all praise athletes for playing hurt. But baseball is different. More than any other sport, the big picture has to drive the decision making. There is a very big difference between an injured Josh Beckett taking the mound in October and an injured Matsuzaka taking the mound in April or May. With Beckett in October 2008, the Red Sox had little choice but to try. They did not have the luxury of time.

For clarity’s sake, let’s also make a distinction. There is a difference between playing hurt and being injured, though that admittedly can be a fine line. No manager wants to enter a critical weekend series with a bunch of cream puffs who can’t play because their hair hurts.

Matsuzaka? He didn’t merely take the mound with a groin injury he suffered while training last January, at least according to a recent published report in Japan. (Have the Red Sox started subscribing to all the Japanese media outlets yet?) He lied about it, too. Groin injuries can be particularly troublesome and debilitating for pitchers for obvious reasons – their performance is based largely on leg drive – and anyone who doesn’t believe that might consider having a conversation with someone like Dustin Hermanson, who hurt his groin in early 2002 and effectively had his whole season wiped out.

Come to think of it, the same thing basically happened to Matsuzaka last year.

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Yesterday, Farrell said that he believes communication between the Red Sox and Matsuzaka has improved since early last year, though club officials have acknowledged that they did not know about Matsuzaka’s groin problem until the recent scoop in Japan. Matsuzaka still seems to communicate more with the Japanese media than he does with the Red Sox, which is probably inevitable to a large degree. Matsuzaka’s relationships in Japan were forged long before the Red Sox ever entered the picture, so some communication gap was bound to exist and remain.

Still, that doesn’t excuse the absence of communication with the Sox on matters that affect them, which is really what this is all about. By all accounts, the Matsuzaka of early 2010 is mile ahead of the Matsuzaka of 2009, and neither he nor the Red Sox have the World Baseball Classic to worry about. Matsuzaka has a great deal to prove to everyone this year – himself, the Red Sox, his country – because last season was an absolute train wreck for him, save for four relatively meaningless starts in September.

In the end, what makes all of this so frustrating for the Red Sox (and everyone else) is not merely the $103.11 million the Sox have invested in Matsuzaka. It is the fact that he is capable of giving them something reasonably close to their money’s worth. As much as Matsuzaka has been a high-wire act during his Sox career, they went 40-21 in his 61 starts during the 2007-08 seasons. That kind of success would translate into 106 victories over a 162-game schedule. The Red Sox of 2010 could be far less potent offensively than the Sox of those seasons, which means Matsuzaka will have to be just as effective, if not more so, this year.

In order for that to happen, doesn’t he have to be on the level with his bosses?

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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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