Dice-K finds rhythm in first start
Francona, Farrell pleased with Classic MVP's outing with Sox
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- He was out of their hands and their sights for the first six weeks of Spring Training, so, yes, the Red Sox were a little nervous about Daisuke Matsuzaka. From Tokyo to San Diego to Los Angeles -- and right to their television sets in Fort Myers, Fla. -- Boston manager Terry Francona or pitching coach John Farrell could watch Matsuzaka pitch and win against Korea, Cuba and Team USA.
Finally, on Monday at Disney's Wild World of Sports, of all places, the Red Sox could see their $103.1 million investment up close, pitching against a Major League opponent.
It will take a while to get a full read, but upon first glance, the World Baseball Classic did Dice-K no harm.
In fact, there were parts of Matsuzaka's Grapefruit League debut against the Braves that his employers would love to bottle. Consider that the righty threw a mere 75 pitches over five innings, allowing two hits and two runs (one earned). He walked three and struck out two, pitching his first game of any kind for the Red Sox since Game 5 of last October's American League Championship Series.
"I thought he was excellent," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "He was very efficient with his pitches. I think sometimes he tries to be so perfect that he gets away from that a little bit. I thought he had as good an outing as you could hope. I've got to believe he's still on a little bit of jet lag. It was very encouraging. The way Josh [Beckett] and Jonny [Lester] have thrown this spring, you drop Dice-K in there, it's a pretty good front end of your rotation to open the season with."
For all of Matsuzaka's success in his first two seasons with the Red Sox -- and there has been a lot -- lack of efficiency has been an issue.
"I'm impressed myself that I got through five innings [at 75 pitches]," Matsuzaka said. "There were a lot of things I was able to work on out there today, especially using movement on my pitches."
"I think we were kind of pleased," said Francona. "We haven't seen him for a while, except on TV, so it was nice to see him throw. I thought he did OK. For the most part, he threw strikes. I thought his tempo was real good. He threw the ball, didn't waste time."
The way Matsuzaka looks at it, the preparation he did during the Classic could actually help him be in a better rhythm at the outset of the season.
"The Red Sox kept reminding me that I was a little bit ahead of schedule and pacing myself too quickly," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "On the other hand, getting prepared for games that early, I think, kept me ahead of schedule, and I'd like to take that in a positive way."
Considering that Matsuzaka has a Major League record of 33-15, the Red Sox hardly want the man to reinvent himself. But some performances that are longer in innings and shorter on pitch count would be good for everyone involved.
"I don't think we're asking for drastic changes," Farrell said. "He's very aware. He knows that with the pitch limits we customarily have here in the [Major Leagues]. The way we approach our starters gives a feeling of a little restrictiveness at times for him, because throughout his career, he's been a pitcher who has used the entire count with every hitter.
"What we've encouraged is outs earlier in the count, which I think the addition of his two-seamer starting at the midpoint of last year until now is going to give him the ability to do that. But it is a very fine line that you walk. For the sake of being on the plate more, do you give up performance? First and foremost, you want the performance, as does he."
For Matsuzaka, it was a little strange being back in the calm of a Spring Training game. His most recent performance was in the semifinals of the Classic, when he beat Team USA. But there was no lack of focus for Matsuzaka in this one. And he relished the opportunity to pitch against Kenshin Kawakami, the Japanese right-hander entering his first season in the Majors.
"I scaled back quite a bit," Matsuzaka said. "Right now, the adjustments I need to make are really about how to prepare myself going into games. Luckily today, going up against Kenshin-san on the other side gave me a chance to get revved up."
There will be one more exhibition start for Matsuzaka on Saturday in New York against the Mets. Then it will be on to the April 9 start at Fenway against the Tampa Bay Rays.
"Today is the first look in a game situation," said Farrell. "I thought the tempo of his game was good. There was a good flow to it. There wasn't a lot of time in between pitches, which to me is an outward sign of some confidence and some relaxation. I thought he pitched to contact very well. There were a couple of pitches he didn't make with 3-2 counts with a cutter and a slider, but overall, I thought it was a very good outing for him."
As for the tempo? Contrary to popular belief, Matsuzaka would prefer to have good tempo all the time.
"It's something I work on every start," Matsuzaka said. "Once you start losing tempo and rhythm, that's when things start falling apart. Timing and tempo are things I'm consistently aware of."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.