Dice-K the magician wins No. 15
Righty weaves in and out of trouble to pitch Sox past O's
BALTIMORE -- He has become the escape artist, weaving in and out of traffic and almost always coming away with a happy ending.
It's hard to fathom just how Daisuke Matsuzaka has been able to do it, but that topsy-turvy formula has resulted in another 15-win season.
With more than five weeks to go, the right-hander of the Boston Red Sox tied the career high in wins he set in 2007 by once again finding a way to minimize the damage. In Tuesday night's 7-2 conquest over the Orioles, Matsuzaka walked five and threw a whopping 105 pitches over just five innings.
"Get them on first and second and then let him start pitching," quipped Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "It's kind of a tight-rope act sometimes. He has the ability to make pitches. He has some power on his fastball. Just a lot of men on base and only two of them scored. Again, it wasn't that easy. Five innings, and that was a lot of work. But because we scored, it's a win. He worked hard."
Dice-K is now 15-2 with a 2.77 ERA. In this one, Matsuzaka achieved a somewhat unique feat, becoming the first American League pitcher to win six separate five-walk starts in a season since Bobby Witt in 1987. The last Red Sox pitcher to pull off that type of Houdini-ism was Mickey McDermott, who had eight five-walk wins in 1953.
"Whether I allow hits or I allow walks, the important thing is to not allow the runners to score," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "That's the way I thought last year, and it's still the same this year."
While Matsuzaka and the flawless bullpen (four shutout innings) took care of matters from the mound, Kevin Youkilis continued his career season with the bat.
The first baseman, who is playing third while Mike Lowell is on the disabled list, went 3-for-5, including home run No. 24 on the season. In this one, Youkilis started at third, moved to first and then returned to third after an ejection of Dustin Pedroia caused Francona to get creative.
"Youk has been a huge player for us," Francona said. "Even tonight, defensively -- he's all over the diamond. He's been very productive at the plate. We need him to be."
Unlike Youkilis, Jason Varitek has spent much of the year in an offensive funk. But the captain went deep for the second night in a row and later added an RBI double.
"It's great," said Pedroia. "Hopefully, he can catch fire and keep it going. He's swinging the bat real well and he needs that."
The Red Sox (73-53) established early momentum for the second night in a row. Jacoby Ellsbury led off the game with a single to right and stole second against Orioles starter Daniel Cabrera (8-8). Pedroia drew a walk and David Ortiz drilled an RBI single up the middle. Jason Bay made it 2-0 with a sacrifice fly to left.
Varitek's solo blast in the second, a liner to right, made it 3-0.
As it turned out, Matsuzaka needed every bit of that lead on a night he was far from his sharpest. The Orioles (60-65) rallied in their half of the third, getting RBI singles from Ramon Hernandez and Luke Scott to slim Boston's lead to 3-2.
"It was just one of those days," Matsuzaka said. "Lots of things felt different than usual, but I'm happy that the team got the win today."
An inning later, things almost got much worse for Matsuzaka when he loaded the bases with nobody out. But he got a huge strikeout against Melvin Mora on a 3-2 slider, and then Aubrey Huff popped to third to end the threat.
Remarkably, Matsuzaka has stifled opponents to the tune of 0-for-14 with the bases loaded this season.
"Now that you've said it, I think somebody is going to get that hit," said Matsuzaka. "It doesn't matter whether the bases are loaded or not, my job is to not let them score. If there's a base empty, of course that's a little easier. But it's not something I worry about too much."
Despite Matsuzaka's high-wire act, he is fourth in the AL in wins and second in winning percentage.
"He finds a way to win," Pedroia said. "That's all we can ask out of a starting pitcher. He's 15-2, so he's having a great year. He finds ways to get out of trouble. That's all we can ask."
As for Matsuzaka, he is pleased to again be a member of the 15-win club.
"I think I'd like to reach 15 wins every year if possible, on average," Matsuzaka said. "It's not that easy to get those wins, as you saw last year."
Then again, this year -- aside from the wins -- nothing has come easily for the right-hander.
At this time of year, however, style points count for nothing.
"There's not much left in the regular season, so each game is going to get more and more important," Matsuzaka said. "I just want to focus. We want to end the season on a high note, so I want to end the season on a high note without regrets."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.