"That Matsuki guy," as Tigers manager Jim Leyland called him before last night's game, might still be a mouthful for some folks on this side of The Pond.
Last night, Daisuke Matsuzaka was obviously more than a handful for Leyland's defending American League champions. They managed just six hits and succumbed to the Red Sox, 7-1, before a Fenway Park audience of 36,935 that was standing at the end for the Japanese righthander's first complete game in the big leagues.
"He's the real deal," Leyland said afterward. "He's good."
This may have been the first time the home crowd has experienced first-hand what all the Dice-K hype has been about. In three previous starts on Yawkey Way, Matsuzaka was 1-1 with a 7.58 ERA. The last time he pitched here, he gave up five runs before getting out of the first inning.
Last night, he finished what he started, leaving Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima, who were warming up in the eighth, in the bullpen.
"They were going to let him go back there and pitch to Shef [Gary Sheffield], and then go from there, see how his AB went," Papelbon said of Matsuzaka, who did not walk a batter and allowed only one runner past second base -- Curtis Granderson, who homered over the bullpen in the third.
Sending out Matsuzaka for the ninth became academic after Julio Lugo -- whose ninth-inning chopper and sprint/slide into the bag was the climactic act of Sunday's history-bending comeback -- broke open a tight game with a bases-loaded triple in the eighth. By the time Lugo trotted home with the fourth run of the inning on Kevin Youkilis's base hit, Papelbon and Okajima had taken seats.
For the first time in the big leagues, Matsuzaka was on the field at game's end to accept the congratulations of his teammates, beginning with catcher Jason Varitek, who said something that caused Matsuzaka to break into a wide smile.
"You know me," Varitek said. "Sometimes I don't say what I said. Maybe it was the little Japanese that I know."
Matsuzaka, who has won his last four decisions, came up big the day after unbeaten Josh Beckett tore skin off his middle finger and could be headed to the disabled list.
"I don't think that's a worry," Youkilis said, when asked if Matsuzaka's performance took on added significance because of the uncertainty over Beckett. "Daisuke can't worry about Josh, and we're not playing a game thinking about a pitcher who pitched yesterday. We play the game to play the game. If Josh can't pitch, we'll have someone step in for him, and he'll do a great job."
The Sox, winning for the seventh time in eight games and 14th time in 18 games, maintained the best record (26-11) in the majors. They lead the AL East by 8 1/2 games, their biggest margin since they were that many up on Sept. 26, 1995.
The fast start no doubt has kept the boo-birds away from right fielder J.D. Drew, who committed an error, struck out three times, rolled out to first, and was the only batter in the Sox order not to hit safely.
Seven Sox batters had two hits apiece: Lugo, Youkilis, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Varitek, Coco Crisp, and Dustin Pedroia.
The Sox did not batter Tigers starter Nate Robertson into submission, but they wore down the begoggled lefthander with a series of grinding at-bats, most notably in the fourth, when Varitek hit a two-out double after a 10-pitch at-bat, and Crisp singled him home after a nine-pitch at-bat.
"He ended up throwing a lot of pitches after that," said Varitek, who is hitting .400 (14 for 35) over his last 10 games and is batting .283 overall.
The Sox opened the scoring in the third with another two-out run, this one created by a double by Youkilis and a single by Ortiz. They scored again in the fifth on Ortiz's opposite-field double and Manny Ramírez's ground-ball single off the field-box railing in left.
Robertson departed after the fifth, having thrown a hefty load of 115 pitches in that short span -- without walking a batter. The Sox had 11 hits off him but stranded seven runners in the first five innings.
Varitek started the eighth-inning rally by drawing a one-out walk off Bobby Seay, the third Tigers pitcher. Crisp followed with a single to right and Pedroia with a single to left. That brought up Lugo, who shot a ball into the left-center gap, clearing the bases.
"All night long I thought they did a really good job of fouling off tough pitches," Leyland said. "And they really made our pitchers pitch."
Matsuzaka averaged nearly 13 complete games in his last three seasons in Japan (38 for the Seibu Lions), so perhaps that's why it wasn't such a big deal to him to record his first here.
"I'm not thrilled about that in and of itself," he said through his translator, "but the fact that I was able to pitch my first really good game, my first good showing at Fenway, that I'm really excited about."
He recorded 16 ground-ball outs, including a force play for the game's final out.
"He was great," Papelbon said. "He's starting to pound the zone now. He's saying, hey, pound the zone and hit it and if I can get my strikeouts, fine, if not, let them put it in play and use our defense, which has been so good for us."