04/02/08 2:30 AM ET
Dice-K, timely hitting pace Sox over A's
Looking comfortable in second start, righty fans nine batters
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
Looking a lot more comfortable at McAfee Coliseum on Tuesday night than he did on the much more familiar mound of Tokyo Dome on March 25, Matsuzaka mowed through the Oakland Athletics and led those world travelers, the Red Sox, to a 2-1 victory.
The Red Sox, who resumed exhibition play with three games in Los Angeles following their return from Japan, hit the re-start button on their 2008 season, improving to 2-1.
Matsuzaka -- who has been far less hyped this season than he was as the heralded new acquisition a year ago -- looked in complete command. The right-hander allowed a mere two hits and one run over 6 2/3 innings, walking none and striking out nine.
"I can say it in hindsight, but it would have been nice to have been able to pitch like this back at Tokyo Dome," Matsuzaka said through translator Masa Hoshino.
As far as the Sox were concerned, the timing couldn't have been any better for Matsuzaka to put together such a clean outing.
Consider that Matsuzaka threw one more pitch in this outing (96) than he did during his five-inning no-decision in Tokyo.
"Dice-K threw the ball great," said Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis, who had three hits to fuel the cause. "He commanded his pitches, he looked like he had a real feel of where the ball was going and that's huge. That was a great outing for him and a great outing for the Red Sox knowing that we have a pitcher that is making some strides forward. It's great that he came back out and pitched well."
The bullpen was nearly flawless in relief of Matsuzaka. Hideki Okajima worked a shutout inning to set the table for closer Jonathan Papelbon, who recorded the final four outs to earn his second save.
"It was a really good job [by Matsuzaka]," said Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "Then, Oki and Pap, that's a pretty good feeling when you get them out there."
The night also came with a milestone, as Youkilis tied Steve Garvey's Major League record by playing consecutive game No. 193 at first base without an error.
Offensively, the Red Sox did just enough to win. Jacoby Ellsbury tied the game with a single to right with two outs in the fifth and Jason Varitek put the Sox ahead for good with a disputed RBI double in the sixth that looked as if it should have been a two-run homer.
"We didn't get too many hits, but the ones we got were key," Ellsbury said.
On a night Matsuzaka mostly cruised, he hit one brief rough patch to start the bottom of the second when Jack Cust roped a solo homer over the wall in left field to make it 1-0 in favor of Oakland.
The Red Sox, tamed by Joe Blanton over the first four innings, began hitting their stride in the fifth. Youkilis got it started with a single to right. With two outs, Julio Lugo reached on an infield single.
That set things up nicely for Ellsbury, who lined a single to right that barely brought home Youkilis.
Right fielder Travis Buck made a strong throw to the plate that beat Youkilis, but catcher Kurt Suzuki appeared to miss the tag.
"I just saw he was real low and I knew I couldn't run him over," said Youkilis. "He put his legs on top and I just tried to go as hard as I could and his legs were in an awkward position. He swiped the tag and he didn't touch me when he swiped and that's why I went back and hit it with my hand. I guess I hit it before."
The Red Sox at last broke in front in the sixth. Following a triple to left by Youkilis, Varitek belted what appeared to be a two-run homer above the scoreboard in right. But first-base umpire Paul Schrieber thought it hit below the yellow line at the top of the scoreboard and the play went as an RBI double, giving the Sox a 2-1 lead.
The umpires huddled, but didn't see enough evidence to reverse the call.
"They thought it bounced sideways," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "The guys on the replay said it was a home run. They met and the way [crew chief] Wally [Bell] explained it to me, they have to be sure to over-rule it. I could give them a heck of a lot better argument if I had someone in the dugout who saw it on instant replay. They met and they were good about it and they said, 'we'll check afterwards.' It's hard. I wanted it to be a home run because I'm with Boston, whether it's a home run or not. It was hard to tell."
But thanks to Matsuzaka and the 'pen, the apparent missed call was not costly.
"[Matsuzaka] did a great job getting ahead of hitters," said Ellsbury. "It looked like all the stuff was working. He pitched a great game."
In fact, Matsuzaka was still cruising even when he left. He retired the first two batters of the seventh. But with Cust looming, Francona decided not to give history a chance to repeat itself.
Per usual, Matsuzaka wasn't ready to call it a night.
"I saw the relievers up in the 'pen, but I was able to get two quick outs, so I wasn't expecting a change at that point," said Matsuzaka. "If I could have been allowed to stay out there, of course I would have loved to have continued pitching. I'm sure that Tito saw the batter I was facing had hit that home run off me and he brought in Okajima to face the lefty."
But the night had a happy ending for Matsuzaka and the Sox. By the time Papelbon recorded the final out, Matsuzaka went on a quest to retrieve the baseball.
You see, it was Matsuzaka's first win since the birth of his first son.
"I had asked my teammates to hang on to the game-wining ball but I guess the message was lost," Matsuzaka said. "I witnessed the ball going into the stands so I went over there and knew that I had to get it back."
And in one satisfying night, Matsuzaka also seemed to get some of his swagger back.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.