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Pirates found it hard to connect

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Struggle? Did someone say something about Daisuke Matsuzaka struggling?

"If that's struggling," manager Terry Francona said yesterday after Matsuzaka's best showing yet, "we're in for some fun."

Matsuzaka, making his third start of the spring against a big league team, allowed the Pirates one hit in 5 2/3 innings, a sinking line-drive single by Adam LaRoche with two outs in the first inning that scored Chris Duffy, who had been nicked by a pitch.

Matsuzaka ended that inning by throwing a baffling changeup to a righthanded hitter, Jason Bay, for a third strike, Bay becoming the first of 11 batters Matsuzaka set down in order before walking Nate McLouth in the fifth.

With the last of his 92 pitches, Matsuzaka struck out Don Kelly after an extended at-bat in which Kelly fouled off a passel of pitches, then left to a standing ovation from the crowd of 6,021 who attended the Sox' 7-3 win.

Matsuzaka bowed to the crowd and waved his cap, but acknowledged some puzzlement afterward.

"It's fairly rare to receive a standing ovation upon being taken out of a game in the middle of an inning," he said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "I was happy and grateful, but at the same time, I was a little bit embarrassed."

It was Matsuzaka who, when asked what he found most satisfying about his performance, replied that he "was able to pitch despite struggling a little."

That could not be deduced from the results, not when he retired 15 of the last 16 batters he faced and struck out seven.

But catcher Jason Varitek acknowledged that on a day in which a stiff breeze was blowing toward the plate, Matsuzaka had some difficulty with the grip on some of his pitches. Matsuzaka said he had trouble keeping his "shuto" -- essentially his darting, two-seam fastball -- from cutting too much to the right.

But that seemed like nitpicking on a day in which scouts sitting behind home plate said Matsuzaka touched 94 miles per hour with his fastball and Kelly, among other Pirates, sat in front of a laptop in the clubhouse, trying to determine what pitches they'd just seen from Matsuzaka.

"Very, very impressive," said Pirates manager Jim Tracy, who played some in Japan. "He continues a long line of great Japanese pitchers. The fact that he really knows what he's doing, put that together with the fact he has great stuff, and that's quite a package."

Matsuzaka has two tuneups left before he makes his regular-season debut, scheduled for April 5 in Kansas City, the third game of the season. Francona said he'll probably scale back Matsuzaka's next outing, which is scheduled for Monday in Sarasota against the Reds. His final preseason exercise is scheduled for a week from Saturday in Philadelphia.

Knocks, knocks
Jon Lester was knocked around a bit in a minor league game yesterday afternoon. Pitching against Rochester, the Twins' Triple A team, Lester did not finish the second or third inning because of pitch-count restrictions. He wound up throwing 42 pitches and gave up six hits and three runs while walking one and striking out one . . . Francona and pitching coach John Farrell did not arrive until about an hour before the game, having stayed in Fort Myers for a meeting with general manager Theo Epstein and his staff. Francona refused to say what was discussed, but the closer situation almost certainly was the primary topic. The Sox appear no closer to settling on a closer than they were at the start of camp. Jonathan Papelbon is not off the table -- nothing is -- and while the Sox continue to explore outside options, it's a seller's market, and they're not close to meeting anyone's asking price . . . With two hits yesterday in three trips, J.D. Drew raised his spring average to .464. "It's been tremendous," Francona said of Drew's spring. "It bodes well for the season, because the way he hits, that left-field wall is going to look very near him. He's going to reach that wall." . . . Manny Ramírez, who was not listed on the original traveling squad, reached base in all three plate appearances, with an RBI single in the first and two walks. "He said he was bored and wanted to play," Francona said. Ramírez plans to play today in Clearwater, too . . . Plate umpire Wally Bell, prompted by the Pirates, warned Matsuzaka about going to his mouth while on the rubber. That's a balk in the regular season . . . Coco Crisp (shoulder) will be held back until tomorrow, Francona said, because the Sox are scheduled to face a lefthander, Jamie Moyer, today against the Phillies. "He said he's feeling pretty good," Francona said of Crisp . . . Manny Delcarmen replaced Matsuzaka and gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, Ronny Paulino, who is batting .500 this spring, but retired the next four batters he faced. Francona said he threw his best changeups of the spring . . . The Yankees will not be visiting the Red Sox in Fort Myers next season, according to Major League Baseball vice president Katy Feeney, who puts together the spring training schedules. The Sox will not play a game in Tampa this spring, and the once-a-spring approach will continue at least through next season, she said.