The last time Daisuke Matsuzaka faced Detroit back in May you might recall, the Tigers walked away not all that impressed with the arsenal tossed at them by the Red Sox hurler despite a complete game six-hitter.
"He was all right," Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge said at the time. "He didn't stand out to me like the most dominating thing I've ever seen."
Wonder what they’ll think now.
For all the hype, international intrigue, and marketing attempts surrounding the presence of Japan’s greatest living pitcher, it’s remarkable to suggest that perhaps not enough has been made about the rookie season that Matsuzaka is enjoying with the Red Sox. After all, about the only place you couldn’t catch the pitcher’s face for a good four-month period was on a box of Wheaties, and even that might not last too much longer.
But over the past month, Matsuzaka has instantly transformed himself from a generally pleasing pitcher of “let’s wait and see where he’s going” entertainment value directly into drop-dead ace material. For many who expected there to be some sort of adjustment period as he immersed into the American League, the rate at which Matsuzaka has grasped what he needs to do in a higher level of the game is remarkable.
Consider the low point, on May 30 the Cleveland Indians rocked Matsuzaka for 12 hits and six earned runs over 5 2/3 innings. Five days earlier, the Texas Rangers got to him for five runs on seven hits over five innings of work. He was 7-3 with an ERA creeping toward 5.00 (4.83), and there was an increasing consensus that this was going to take some time. While Matsuzaka might display flashes of his potential from time to time, there were certainly going to be these frequent bumps along the way.
Then came a side session that he threw for former manager Osamu Higashio last month at Fenway. Higashio reportedly corrected a few mechanical flaws he saw in Matsuzaka’s delivery, and since then Matsuzaka has been nearly unhittable.
He’s just 3-2 since that late May evening in the Fens, but the record does not speak for the impressive pitcher that he has been over the past month. Since allowing six runs that night, Matsuzaka has given up six runs total in his last six starts, a 1.29 ERA. Since June 16, the start of a three-game winning streak, Matsuzaka’s ERA is a scant 0.62, and in every game since June 5, Matsuzaka has had more strikeouts than hits allowed, at an almost 2:1 ratio (51-26) over that period.
Tampa’s Carlos Pena discovered the other night why Matsuzaka has proven so effective in his first year in the majors. The Globe’s Daniel Malloy writes: “When Matsuzaka was taking a while to read the signs from Sox catcher Jason Varitek, Peña stepped out of the box and called time. ‘I'm sorry,’ Varitek told Peña. ‘He's got like 40 pitches.’”
Remember the preseason predictions, when most had Matsuzaka winning 15 games in his rookie season, a conservative number for a player adjusting to American lifestyle and AL sluggers simultaneously. At the rate he’s going now, that’s a figure he’ll reach by early August, well on a pace to win 20 games, a mark that no Red Sox pitcher has enjoyed since Curt Schilling in 2004. What’s more it’s a milestone that Josh Beckett is just eight wins away from reaching for the first time in his career. Heck, Tim Wakefield, the man everybody wanted to relegate to the bullpen just two weeks ago, has an outside shot at winning 20 games.
While Beckett earned win No. 12 last night in Boston’s 15-4 laugher over the Devil Rays – on the schedule for 15 more – and Wakefield goes for his tenth after everybody reconvenes from the All-Star break, Matsuzaka goes for win No. 11 in Detroit Sunday afternoon in what seems to be the perfect environment. So far this season, he has pitched better on the road (2.95 ERA) than he has at Fenway (4.13) and has been much more effective in day games (1.75 ERA) than at night (4.35).
There is still the occasional one-inning hiccup, as evidenced a fortnight ago in San Diego, where it seemed his first-inning wildness might prove disastrous. With those issues in mind, perhaps most encouraging over the past two starts is that Matsuzaka walked a grand total of two batters in 16 innings of work.
Compare what Matsuzaka is now to the pitcher he was in the season’s first two months, when he gave up five-plus runs on four separate occasions. In the six starts since, he’s given up two runs twice, one run twice, and no runs twice. In two of those outings (a loss at Oakland and a no-decision at Seattle), he has pitched valiantly enough to win, and could theoretically have 12 wins to his credit, which would tie him for the league-lead with Beckett and C.C. Sabathia.
There are certain pitchers who possess a certain marquee value, a credit to witnessing them dole out their craft on the mound. No pitcher more so fits that description than Pedro Martinez, who was a wonder to watch in his prime. It’s impossible to put Matsuzaka in that class right now, based on three months work, but he is indeed an intriguing guy to watch play the game for sure. He’s not an All-Star, but he has quickly transformed into an ace.
If he hasn’t been as good as advertised, that’s because he’s been better. We could still do without the CD, but even that can’t deter from the unbridled fun that it is to watch Matsuzaka on the mound.