Dice-K's triumphant return
Right-hander overcomes three-walk first inning as Sox prevail
SAN DIEGO -- The baserunners were hovering at the corners, antsy to tie the game or put the Padres ahead. But there stood Daisuke Matsuzaka, seemingly oblivious to the stressful situation that engulfed him. His pitch count escalating close to 130, Matsuzaka reached back with the count 2-2 and threw a 94-mph fastball right by Marcus Giles.
The jam was averted. Matsuzaka's evening ended right there, along with the bottom of the sixth inning.
This was the defining moment for Matsuzaka on a night he barely outdueled one of his idols in Greg Maddux. And so it was that the Red Sox squeaked out a tense 2-1 victory over the Padres on Friday night at PETCO Park.
"Knowing how great a pitcher that he is, I knew I would have to do my best to hold their lineup to as few runs as possible," Matsuzaka said through translator Masa Hoshino. "Facing him in the batter's box, he threw a lot of two seam fastballs to me and I was able to see first-hand what a great pitcher he actually is. He's one of the pitchers I look up to, so I felt very happy to actually be able to see his pitches live, first-hand."
It was a triumphant return to PETCO for Matsuzaka, who won the Most Valuable Player trophy in the World Baseball Classic at this very park some 15 months ago.
"When I stepped on the field, it was just as I remembered it, a very beautiful ballpark," Matsuzaka said.
But there wasn't a lot of time for Matsuzaka to be nostalgic. The game was too tight for that.
"Good game," said Maddux. "I got out-pitched. Pitched good enough to lose however you want to say it or look at it."
And Matsuzaka was just good enough to win. In this gutty 126-pitch performance, Matsuzaka held the Padres to five hits and a run, walking five and striking out nine. The right-hander ran his record to 9-5 and lowered his ERA to 4.01.
While the strikeout of Giles might have seemed like a fitting way to end the night, Matsuzaka had no interest in seeing it conclude there. For a man who once threw 250 pitches in a high school game, the workload was hardly taxing.
But with Matsuzaka due to hit second in the top of the seventh, it was a no-brainer for Red Sox manager Terry Francona.
"He actually wanted to stay out there," Francona said. "I tried to explain to him, I didn't think he was a real good hitter. He said he'll work on that next spring, which we'll get to. I think savvy's a real good word. He may be new here but he knows how to pitch. He's a veteran pitcher."
The bullpen took it home from there. Javy Lopez and Manny Delcarmen got Boston through the seventh. Hideki Okajima (0.98 ERA) took care of the eighth. Jonathan Papelbon came on in the ninth for his 17th save.
The Red Sox have now given up one run over their last 28 innings.
"Delcarmen comes in and throws the ball very well," Francona said. "Hideki, again, looks like he had that split he's had most of the year, a real good one. And then Pap was good. It was well-pitched all the way around on both sides."
Matsuzaka began his outing by not being able to find the plate. He walked the first three batters, then gave up a one-out RBI single to left field to Michael Barrett. Despite throwing 32 pitches in the first, Matsuzaka gave up just the one run.
"Once he found his release, he started making pitches," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek.
Minimizing the damage is something Matsuzaka has built his legacy on.
"Firstly, I tried to get off to a gentle start today, but that clearly didn't go so well," Matsuzaka said. "After getting into the jam, I told myself that one run would be permissible here and that's how I approached that spot."
Maddux stymied the Boston bats over the first three innings but his luck changed in the fourth. Dustin Pedroia opened the rally with a single to right. Manny Ramirez roped a one-out single up the middle, setting up an RBI single to center by Kevin Youkilis to tie it at 1. Varitek gave the Sox their first lead of the night by going up the middle for a single that brought home Ramirez.
"You like to have four- or five- or six- or a 10-run lead but you know, it was a good game," said Maddux, who fell to 5-1 lifetime against the Red Sox. "Every play mattered, every out was important. Just didn't make the pitches there in the fourth inning."
On a night the teams were wearing vintage 1982 jerseys, Matsuzaka's uniform -- grey with blue lettering -- looked eerily similar to the one he wore for Yokohama High School back in that 1998 Koshien Tournament in which his legend started to be built.
"I hadn't heard prior to the game that we'd be wearing these throwback jerseys today so I was a little bit surprised," Matsuzaka said. "I tried it on in the locker room and it certainly felt like I was going back to high school. It didn't feel strange though."
For just like back then, he willed himself to victory.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.