The Red Sox sent Daisuke Matsuzaka to the mound last night hoping to roll a seven, but with the knowledge they might roll snake-eyes.
The ‘pitching surplus’ the front office believed it had stocked last winter had turned out to be a mirage due to ineffectiveness (Penny and Smoltz) and injury (Matsuzaka and Wakefield).
The rapid maturation of Clay Buchholz had helped plug the dike, but the recent struggles of ace Josh Beckett caused many to question whether this team could make a run deep into October.
While Beckett has returned to form in his last two outings, I still believe the team would be best served to skip him once through the rotation to help him get over the ‘dead arm’ period that has afflicted him.
Two weeks ago, it seemed that the only experienced pitcher the Sox would be able to depend on in October is Jon Lester, who is in the midst of an extraordinary season. Buchholz has been brilliant, but he remains untested in post-season play.
Beckett was surrendering gopher balls at a frightening rate. Wakefield needed cortison shots and STILL couldn’t walk very well. Matsuzaka had been shelled in a Double-A rehab outing.
The team will need at least three—and preferably, four—solid starters if it is to win its third World Series title in the last six years. With Wakefield hobbled, Matsuzaka has become an increasingly big piece of the post-season puzzle. So, last night he was sent to the mound—just six days after he faced down Hi-A hitters in a minor league rehab appearance.
After surrendering five runs in the first inning of a rehab outing in Manchester, NH, early in the month, Dice-K explained that he had been working on some adjustments in his delivery and his mechanics. It was an explanation that didn’t sit well with observers, but it was clear to many in attendance that he was not himself.
Even when he got through the second inning on nine pitches, many of the folks in the press box scoffed at his explanation. I didn’t understand the skepticism, but it was clear that no one knew what the Red Sox would be able to expect from their right-hander as the season wound down… maybe not even Dice-K himself.
So last night he made his return from the disabled list… and everyone knew that his outing would go a long way to show whether he can help the club in the playoffs.
The answer appears to be a resounding ‘yes’.
Dice-K held the high-octane Los Angeles offense to three hits over six shutout innings to lead the Red Sox to a 4-1 victory against their likely ALDS opponents. He walked three and struck out five. And if this is a harbinger of what can be expected from him in the next five weeks, the Sox may now be in a position where they have four starters they can rely on during the post-season.
How quickly things change.
Suddenly, the club has won six straight games - a stretch in which it has been led by a pitching staff that has surrendered a total of eight runs. It is the team’s second-longest winning streak of the year )they won eleven straight back in April).
Last night, Dice-K did not allow a hit through the first four innings. He was relieved after walking the leadoff batter in the seventh inning. As he waited at the mound for ramon Ramirez to trot in from the bullpen the anticipation in the ballpark grew.
The fans were ready to show their appreciation. As he finally made his way towards the dugout, he received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the Fenway Faithful. He doffed his cap to the crowd in return.
After the game, Matsuzaka said: “We’re in the middle of a playoff race, and we don’t have a lot of leeway. I just want to do my best to contribute… I’ve been a burden on my teammates. I feel that I owe them. There’s not much left in the season. In the limited opportunity I do have, I want to show my appreciation to my teammates and the fans”.
Angels starter John Lackey allowed three runs (two earned) on eight hits and three walks, striking out six. He had a shutout working into the bottom of the sixth inning—when 1B Kendry Morales failed to make a play on Jacoby Ellsbury’s sacrifice bunt and Lackey, himself, threw Dustin Pedroia’s sac bunt by 3B Chone Figgins on an attempted force play.
Two pitches. Two sacrifice bunts. No outs. One run scored. Two runners in scoring position.
The game changed THAT quickly.
David Ortiz drove Ellsbury home with a base hit to left field. Two innings later, J D Drew scored after lacing a one-out triple down the right field line. Ortiz then homered into the center field bleachers to establish a 4-zip lead.
The home run was Papi’s 313th career homer… it was the 270th he hit as a Designated Hitter, moving him past Frank Thomas for most career HR by a DH. (NOTE: Thomas had 521 in his career, but 252 came as a first baseman).
Ramirez pitched a scoreless seventh inning. Billy Wagner and Daniel Bard retired the Angels in a scoreless eight inning (Bard hit 100 mph with the second of his three pitches). Jonathan Papelbon surrendered a meaningless run (on two hits) in the ninth.
If nothing changes, the Red Sox and Angels will meet in the first round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season. The Sox have won 12 of their last 13 playoff games against Los Angeles dating back to 1986. They have never lost a post-season series to their west coast opponents.
Victor Martinez (personal reasons) and Kevin Youkilis (back spasms) were given the night off.
INF Chris Woodward was sent to Triple-A Pawtucket to clear space for Matsuzaka on the roster.