Matsuzaka starts anew as old Dice-K
Pitcher returns to rave reviews after throttling Angels
BOSTON -- For most of Tuesday night, the difference was all about the pitches. They were faster, they were crisper and much less hittable than when Daisuke Matsuzaka was last seen in a Major League game. But when the Red Sox's right-hander exited following a sparkling effort -- en route to a 4-1 victory over the Angels -- the difference was all in the vocal chords of the Fenway faithful.
With a runner on first and nobody out in the seventh, Red Sox manager Terry Francona came out to get Matsuzaka, and the fans were up on their feet, roaring with approval. Dice-K gave a hearty tip of his cap and walked back into the dugout, getting the same type of warmth from his teammates that he got from the crowd. It wasn't like that when Matsuzaka last pitched for the Red Sox the night of June 19, when he was booed off the mound after giving up eight hits and six runs in four-plus innings.
In his return, Matsuzaka fired six-plus innings of shutout baseball, allowing three hits. He walked three and struck out five, throwing 93 pitches.
"In the last start, I left amidst some boos," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "So to be able to come back and experience that today was something very special as a ballplayer. If I could say one thing, I didn't want to leave in the middle of an inning, but I'm very grateful for the fans' response today."
His season looking completely lost eight starts in, Matsuzaka and the Red Sox put the brakes on, hoping that an extensive strengthening and fitness program would salvage at least part of 2009. If Tuesday night's start was any indication, Matsuzaka could be just what his team needs for the most important time of year.
"Having Dice-K back and throwing the ball the way he can is just huge for us, especially with us thinking about going to the playoffs right now," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who clubbed his 270th career homer as a DH, surpassing Frank Thomas for the all-time record.
It was Matsuzaka's first quality start of 2009 and it came against the team the Red Sox have a strong likelihood of facing if they hold on to their Wild Card lead and advance to the postseason.
"We're in the midst of a playoff race and we don't have a lot of leeway so I just wanted to do my best to contribute to getting the win today and I was relieved I was able to do that," Matsuzaka said.
In actuality, the Red Sox -- who have reeled off six wins in a row -- are starting to get some of that leeway Matsuzaka mentioned. Boston now leads the Rangers by 5 1/2 games in the Wild Card standings.
"When you play good in September, it gets you in a good mood for October," said Ortiz. "We're looking good and feeling good."
Not only did Matsuzaka (2-5, 7.02 ERA) win, but he outpitched Angels ace John Lackey.
"I thought he was terrific," Francona said. "He stayed in his delivery the entire night. It looked like he had some life on his fastball without a lot of effort. He threw a real good cutter. He had three walks and two of them, he had guys 0-2. It's a huge short in the arm for us."
The Red Sox didn't do much against Lackey, but a small-ball rally in the sixth -- the type the Angels are known for -- gave them the momentum they needed.
No. 9 hitter Alex Gonzalez led off with a single. Jacoby Ellsbury then bunted his way on with a single. Ellsbury's bunt was intended as a sacrifice, but first baseman Kendry Morales bobbled it.
Francona then called for another bunt, this one from Dustin Pedroia. Lackey pounced on it, but made a throwing error to third, allowing Gonzalez to cross home for the first run of the game. With two outs, Ortiz made it 2-0 by drilling a sinking line single to left that Juan Rivera couldn't come up with.
"The way they play, we played a little bit like that tonight and put some pressure on them," Francona said. "They make a low throw to third and it creates a rally for us."
The Red Sox scored two in the eighth, on Jason Bay's RBI single and Ortiz's 24th home run.
Matsuzaka could sit back and watch as the bullpen quartet of Ramon Ramirez, Billy Wagner, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon took it home.
With a solid front three of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz already in place, a rejuvenated Matsuzaka could mean big things as the Red Sox go after their third World Series championship in the last six seasons.
"It was nice to see from him," said Jason Varitek. "You forget this guy won us 18 games last year. It was nice for him to go out there and finally have some results."
Quite frankly, Matsuzaka feels like he owes his teammates -- who have put together a likely postseason berth without much from him -- a strong finish.
"On the road back I've been a burden on my teammates more than anything and I feel that I owe them," Matsuzaka said. "There's not much left in the season, but in the limited time and the limited opportunity that I do have, I want to show my appreciation to my teammates and the fans by contributing in a positive way."
"He did a heck of a job," said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. "He's to be commended for the work he's put in to get back to this point and give us outings here in September. If he didn't commit to this work needed, we probably wouldn't be sitting here talking about him tonight. But the fact that he did, on some very lonely outings down in Fort Myers, Florida, when no one else was around, that's where his drive and his self-motivation shines through."
Where it once seemed like it might be a bit of a tight squeeze to try to get Matsuzaka back in form enough to help the cause, it now feels like there is ample time for the right-hander to be a key contributor.
"I think that the pitcher you saw today was clearly different than the pitcher you saw at the beginning of the season," Matsuzaka said. "I think the time that I spent over the past three months was definitely worthwhile."
Matsuzaka will next take the ball on Sunday at Camden Yards against the Orioles.
"I think we all feel it's realistic that he can come back in his next start and not necessarily match the numbers, but be the same pitcher," Francona said. "That's what we're really shooting for."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.