05/15/07 12:23 AM ET
Matsuzaka adds tempo to repertoire
Right-hander turns in second consecutive solid performance
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
For the second start in a row, Matsuzaka looked to be in control of both his opponent and his surroundings, lifting the Red Sox to a 7-1 victory over the Tigers on Monday night in a showdown of teams that lead their respective divisions. In fact, this time Matsuzaka was in complete control. As in, complete game control.
By winning seven of their last eight games, the Red Sox have boosted their lead to a season-high of 8 1/2 games in the American League East.
The man known throughout Red Sox Nation as Dice-K went the distance, marking the first time a Boston starter has produced a wire-to-wire effort this season. In thrilling the Fenway faithful -- which packed the yard at 36,935 strong -- Matsuzaka scattered six hits and a run while walking nobody and striking out five.
When he came back out for the ninth, the crowd roared with approval.
"The fans gave me a huge ovation and that definitely pumped me up," said Matsuzaka through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "As for throwing a complete game, I'm not that thrilled about that in and of itself, but the fact I was able to pitch my first really good game, my first really good showing at Fenway, that I'm really excited about."
Rather than overpower the Tigers, Matsuzaka was crisp and precise. Sixteen of his 27 outs were of the ground ball variety.
"I think it was good that I was able to give our batting lineup a chance to stay in rhythm by keeping my innings short," said Matsuzaka, who improved to 5-2 and lowered his ERA to 4.17. "I was conscious of throwing strikes and I felt like I pitched at a good tempo today."
That enabled Sox manager Terry Francona to give his bullpen a complete night off.
"To stay away from everybody else today really makes it an even better effort," Francona said.
On a night Matsuzaka fired 124 pitches, his Major League high thus far, none of them seemed to be of the stressful variety. So for Francona, there really was no decision to be made entering the ninth.
"I didn't see a reason to take him out," said Francona. "He never came out of his delivery. He was better at the end than he was at the beginning. He wasn't giving up hits."
For a man who once threw 250 pitches in a high school game, the workload was hardly grueling.
"I'm conscious that the staff is conscious of the pitch count, but that doesn't mean that I have to change my pitching," said Matsuzaka. "I just hope that I can continue to pitch like I did today and overall, I'm not too concerned about the pitch count."
Suddenly, concerns are at a minimum for the man the Red Sox invested $103.1 million in the offseason. That three-start slump Matsuzaka endured in late April and early May has been erased by his last two outings, in which he's allowed just two runs over 16 innings.
"When I felt I was performing poorly there for a while, I felt like I needed to change how I would prepare for the game, so I made some adjustments," Matsuzaka said. "But as I've said before, it's too early to tell whether those changes that I've made are leading to better results."
The Tigers were clearly curious about Matsuzaka, judging by the fact that practically their entire starting nine was on the top step while he completed his warmup tosses in the first inning. They'd heard all about Matsuzaka. Now, they saw it up close.
"He's good," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. "He's a very good Major League pitcher and I was very impressed with him. He had composure and he had good stuff. He knows what to do with it. He's the real deal."
As sharp as Matsuzaka looked, the Tigers did get one healthy swing against him in the third. It came off the bat of Curtis Granderson, who belted a solo homer over the wall in right to make it 1-0. The Sox were quick with their rebuttal against Tigers starter Nate Robertson. Kevin Youkilis clubbed a one-out double to left field and David Ortiz promptly drove him home with an RBI single up the middle.
An inning later, Jason Varitek ignited a two-out rally by spraying an opposite-field double to right. Coco Crisp then dropped a single into center that Granderson seemed to misjudge. At any rate, the RBI hit gave the Sox their first lead of the night at 2-1. By no means were the Red Sox erupting at the plate, but they were certainly chipping away. Ortiz belted a double to left with one out in the fifth, and Manny Ramirez slammed a single just fair down the third-base line to boost the edge to 3-1.
The Red Sox never quite had a breakthrough against Tigers left-hander Nate Robertson, but they certainly worked him. Robertson (11 hits, three earned runs) exited after throwing 115 pitches in his five innings of work.
Julio Lugo padded the final margin when he roped a three-run triple in the eighth inning and then scampered home on Youkilis' RBI single.
With enough offense at his back, Matsuzaka was able to stay on center stage all night.
"Every time he takes the ball it's different," said Varitek. "He has so many pitches to work with. He came out of the bullpen with what seemed to be a good cutter. I talked to [pitching coach] John Farrell before the game because some of his other pitches, it didn't seem like he had a feel for. But he has so many pitches. We were able to mix and match the other pitches in there as the game went on."
The Tigers searched for answers, but continually came up dry.
"He pitched a good game," said the always dangerous Gary Sheffield. "You have to give him respect. He did a good job. To control our lineup the way he did, you have to be on your 'A' game. And he was."
But was it Matsuzaka's "A" game?
"I wouldn't say my stuff was the best that I've ever had with the Red Sox, but as for the results, I'm definitely the most happy about what happened today," Matsuzaka said. "At the same time, I don't want to settle and have to say that going forward, the way I pitched today was the best I can pitch. I hope to improve continually."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.