Daisuke Matsuzaka spent nearly three months on the disabled list for the Boston Red Sox with shoulder troubles, and blamed his troublesome injury on the team’s training methods.
Despite his discontent with their regimen, he slowly, but surely, worked his way back by developing more strength in his right shoulder, and getting into better overall shape. He made many rehab starts and pitched effectively in each. But, entering his return to the Red Sox rotation, Boston had no idea which Matsuzaka would show up.
Would it be the Matsuzaka who was 33-15 with a 3.72 ERA in his first two seasons, and had allowed a league-best 6.9 hits per nine innings last year, or the Matsuzaka who, prior to his injury, was 1-5 with a 8.23 ERA, and had allowed opponents to hit .378 and compile 15 hits per nine innings this season?
To Boston’s delight, the Good Daisuke took the mound against the Anaheim Angels.
His strike-to-ball ratio wasn’t particularly good, but it never really has been, even during his effective days. He has a plus fastball that is thrown in the 92-94 miles per hour range, but isn’t a power pitcher. Rather, because of his assortment of other pitches—curveball, slider, changeup, and possibly the gyroball—he’s a control pitcher.
In past years, he had a high walk rate—80 in 204 innings during his rookie season and 94 in 164 innings in his second—and, before being shut down in June, continued this trend due to a lack of control.
He walked the first hitter of the game, Chone Figgins, and threw nearly fifty percent balls over his first four innings of work. Over those innings, he didn’t allow a hit. He was successful because of his ability to work out of deep counts, and when he did allow a runner into scoring position, like once Figgins stole second, he was brilliant in working out of a jam.
A runner on second with nobody out was little compared to the Angels threat in the fifth. Kendry Morales singled to begin the frame, then after Matsuzaka retired Juan Rivera, Eric Aybar singled and stole second, putting runners on second and third with one out.
An error, fly-out, well-placed groundout, or a hit of any kind would have broken the scoreless tie, but Matsuzaka was in fine form, and did what he did throughout his 15-win rookie and 19-win sophomore seasons: throw strikes in the tightest of situations.
He sent catcher Jeff Mathis down on three pitches, all well-placed fastballs, then after a first-pitch ball to Figgins, disposed of the Angels dangerous leadoff hitter with an uncanny amount of movement on three ensuing fastballs.
In the sixth, Matsuzaka allowed a one-out double to Bobby Abreu and kept the game knotted at zero by striking out the free-swinging Vladimir Guerrero, then retiring Torri Hunter on a lineout to third baseman Mike Lowell.
The contest wasn’t tied for long, as Boston’s offense finally backed Matsuzaka after a five inning hiatus against Angels ace John Lackey. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez led off the bottom of the sixth with a single. Jacoby Ellsbury’s job next was to sacrifice him over to second, but thanks to his speed and perfectly deadened bunt, he reached as well.
Dustin Pedroia tried to duplicate Ellsbury’s bunt, and though his was nubbed harder, it worked out all the same. Lackey fielded the bunt, and, on his knees, tried to gun down Gonzalez at third base.
But his throw was short and bounded past Figgins, who stretched for the toss as a first baseman would instead of blocking the attempt. Gonzalez scampered home as Pedroia trotted into second on the error.
Unlike on Pedroia’s grounder, Lackey fielded J.D. Drew’s ensuing soft grounder and made a sound throw to first for the out. Then, unlike Matsuzaka before him, he had difficulty in such an unenviable spot.
In this same situation in the previous inning–two on, one out–Matsuzaka struck out the final two hitters, whereas Lackey, in this frame, crumbled. He walked Jason Bay to load the bases and gave up an opposite-field single to David Ortiz, a noted pull-hitter.
He then followed Matsuzaka’s example, striking out Lowell and Casey Kotchman, but two batters too late. The damage was already done.
Matsuzaka took the mound to begin the seventh and walked Morales, then left the hill to a standing ovation. Over the first two months, he left to a smattering of boos, but times have changed.
Ramon Ramirez relieved him and made easy work of the inning, sending down the next three hitters. Billy Wagner then took his place in the eighth.
Wagner has a lively fastball, thrown from 94 to 97 miles per hour, with movement. Yet, what made him so effective was how he offset that pitch with his biting slider.
In his prime, he had a full repertoire, but this late in his career, his fastball-slider combination was very serviceable. He struck out Figgins on a slider and offset two with a fastball to get Abreu to flyout.
Daniel Bard came in to face Guerrero with two out and made Wagner’s velocity seem paltry. He overwhelmed the free-swinging Guerrero on three pitches, three 100 miles per hour fastballs no less.
In the bottom of the frame, Boston’s offense provided some much needed insurance. Why was an RBI-single by Bay and a deep solo-shot to center-field by David Ortiz necessary? Because Jonathan Papelbon, their closer, was warming up for the ninth.
While Matsuzaka, Ramirez, Wagner, and Bard possess fastballs with movement, Papelbon throws the straightest of fastballs; and, unlike these four pitches that preceded him, the fastball is his only pitch. This proved problematic against the Angels, a team full of .300 hitters.
To begin the inning, Hunter lined the eight pitch and eighth fastball into center-field, nearly taking off Papelbon’s head in the process. After Hunter sped into second on defensive indifference, Morales drove the fourth pitch and fourth fastball from Papelbon deep into center.
Ellsbury tracked the flight immediately, ran back towards the center-field wall, leaped, and corralled it effortlessly. Papelbon caught a break, and though he fueled off this close call by striking out Rivera, he couldn’t keep the shutout intact, allowing a RBI-double to Aybar before getting Lowell to groundout to Lowell at third.
Ramirez, Wagner, and Bard did their usual job, as did Papelbon in making things interesting. Matsuzaka was the lone surprise. The Red Sox will need this to be a prelude to greater success, and, given his new physique and sharpened mechanics, I have little doubt that it will.