PAWTUCKET, R.I. – Daisuke Matsuzaka experienced only one problem last night. Mud stuck to the bottom of his cleats during the second inning, and the metal tool on the mound could not sufficiently remove it. “It was a little bit slippery,” Matsuzaka said through an interpreter.
The conditions provided the lone concern for Matsuzaka in his first rehab start, which he made for Triple A Pawtucket at McCoy Stadium. Matsuzaka had not pitched in a game since April, his one-inning, 50-pitch implosion in Oakland. The zest and velocity missing from his fastball that night returned at McCoy, convincing Matsuzaka he is not far from leaving the disabled list and rejoining the Red Sox.
“I think I’m ready to pitch in a game,” Matsuzaka said. “I wouldn’t go so far to say I don’t need any rehab starts, but I feel physically ready. And by that I mean I’m ready to go through any rehab program that’s handed to me. Health-wise, I have no problems at all.”
Matsuzaka will likely need at least three rehab starts before he returns to Boston, manager Terry Francona said over the weekend. The club has told Matsuzaka his schedule, and Matsuzaka said he’ll pitch on a five-day rotation in minor league rehab games, but he did not know how many of them he will throw. If Matsuzaka makes two more rehab starts on that schedule, that would make May 25 a rough estimate for his next start with Boston.
Last night, Matsuzaka allowed no runs in 2 2/3 innings, during which he threw 47 pitches. He reached 92 miles per hour on the stadium radar gun, a velocity he didn’t sniff in Oakland.
“I physically felt ready to get after it today,” Matsuzaka said. “But I don’t think I went all the way. I held back a little bit. What that says to me is that physically, I’m back to normal.”
Matsuzaka, as is typical, vacillated between dominant and shaky. He rolled through the first inning in 10 pitches, striking out the first two batters he faced. Both of the hits he allowed were groundballs, and one did not leave the infield. The pitch with which he hit the final batter he faced just nicked the cloth of the jersey and was, really, almost a strike. His fastball mostly hovered between 89 and 92 miles per hour.
But he also needed 23 pitches in the second, when he walked consecutive batters – the first two he faced from the stretch – and loaded the bases with no outs. After Pawtucket pitching coach Rich Sauveur visited the mound, Matsuzaka escaped without allowing any runs, getting a shallow fly to center, a strikeout, and a bouncer back to him. Had the Toledo Mud Hens touched him for a few runs, he would not have much cared.
“I wasn’t going to get too caught up in the actual content of my pitching too much tonight,” Matsuzaka said. “I think I just wanted to focus on the fact that I could pitch in a game.”
The Red Sox have been careful with Matsuzaka, whose strained right shoulder traces to his performance in the World Baseball Classic. Matsuzaka trained in Japan, not under the eye of the Red Sox, and threw as many as 98 pitches in a game while other Sox pitchers were throwing roughly 60 at most. Matsuzaka gave a serviceable performance in his first start, and his arm gave way in the second.
Matsuzaka had thrown only side sessions in a bullpen while traveling with the Red Sox before last night. The reports had been positive, and the Sox planned to have him throw about 45 pitches or three innings, whichever came first. Matsuzaka was pleased he could return to his pregame routine despite cold, dreary conditions and that he could release pitches with ample zip.
“I think even with those things considered, facing hitters in a game situation requires a little bit different mentality,” Matsuzaka said. “But I think that with a few more minor league starts I have left, I can improve upon those points.”
Matsuzaka could feel satisfied and the Red Sox could feel relieved, mainly because of one fact. “Simply,” he said, “the life on the ball was much better today.”