Dice-K better than expected in a loss

That Daisuke Matsuzaka got through five innings with one walk against the Washington Nationals on Saturday had to be considered a success.

That he struck out eight — his most since Aug. 21, 2010 — made his first start in more than a year even more successful.

The problem is you can’t put aside the four runs he allowed because the Sox lost the game, 4-2.

“It looked usable,” Bobby Valentine said. “If we can build on that — eight strikeouts in five innings — that’s pretty good.”

Matsuzaka lost some action on his pitches when he pitched out of the stretch for the first time in the fourth inning and allowed three runs. But that was to be expected given his rocky rehab outings and surgically reconstructed right elbow.

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“Yes I did feel nervous. I felt nervous leading up to the start,” Matsuzaka said via an interpreter. “When I was told by Bobby that I was starting I got a little nervous and felt nervous all week. I felt nervous in the bullpen. It’s probably the most nervous I felt in my whole time in Boston.”

Said Nats manager Davey Johnson: “I thought he threw the ball pretty good for a guy just coming back. He had a live fastball, a good slider.”

Rick Ankiel, the only Washington batter who had faced Matsuzaka before, agreed.

“It seemed like the ball was moving both ways. He was throwing strikes. He struck out eight in five, that’s pretty good,” he said. “Especially when you consider it’s his first start back, you’re dealing with the atmosphere in the big leagues. If he’s on my team, that’s what I would want.

The Red Sox gave Matsuzaka no run support, getting shut out by Gio Gonzalez until the seventh inning. The Sox have lost four of their last five games. At 29-30, they are back under .500 for the first time since May 27.

Given how bunched-up the American League East is, there is no reason for concern yet. But the better Red Sox teams have historically done damage in interleague games and that’s all they have for the next 13 games.

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A few notes:

• Dustin Pedroia was 1 for 4 and is 2 for 20 since returning from a six-game absence due to a thumb injury.

“I’m OK, I’ll be all right,” Pedroia said. “My timing is still a little off. I’m late on the heater and a little early on off-speed pitches. But I’ll have one at-bat where it clicks. … I have to start finding a way to get on base and help us score runs.”

• Franklin Morales was a bright spot, retiring all nine batters he faced, three by strikeout.

With lefties Rich Hill and Andrew Miller available for late-inning situations, Valentine is trying to develop Morales into a long reliever and possibly a spot starter. He pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings against Toronto last Sunday in his previous appearances.

“That’s twice Franklin has pitched in a bit of long role. We’re stretching him out a little,” Valentine said. “He’s maintaining his stuff and throwing strikes. Doing a very good job.”

Morales, who started 15 games earlier in his career, said his arm has responded well.

“I feel fine, I’m making all my pitches,” he said. “I’m not tired at all. I could have kept pitching.”

• The Sox activated Ryan Kalish from the 60-day disabled list and optioned him to Triple-A Pawtucket. To make room for Kalish on the 40-man roster, outfielder Jason Repko was transferred to the 60-day disabled list.

Kalish was 15 days into his 20-day rehab assignment. He was 4 for 5 with a home run for the PawSox today and is 10 of 16 with three homers and seven RBIs in four games for Pawtucket.

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Kalish still needs to play some more given that he essentially missed the 2011 season. But he is now an option if the team needs an outfielder.

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