BALTIMORE - Daisuke Matsuzaka's horrid struggles of late aren't due to a physical problem or fatigue or anything that could be defined easily, according to Terry Francona, John Farrell, and Matsuzaka himself.
At a time when the Sox are trying to get their rotation in shape with three weeks remaining in the regular season, Matsuzaka has hit the proverbial wall, and the next few weeks will be devoted to finding a way to resolve what's bugging the $103 million pitcher. That job will fall to Farrell, the pitching coach, who said last night that communication with the pitcher is not an issue.
"When he's in a big inning, he has a tendency to rely on his fastball and generate as much power as possible and, with that, he's sacrificing location," said Farrell, following the Sox' 11-5 loss to the Orioles in which Matsuzaka lasted 2 2/3 innings, allowed eight earned runs, six hits, and three walks - two of them with the bases loaded.
"He's somewhat gone away from his offspeed pitch and hitters have had a chance to look in hard and not have to guard too much against anything soft."
It may sounds simple, but it's complex.
"It comes down to my inability to throw strikes tonight and being unable to throw strikes didn't even give [Jason] Varitek a chance to really call the game," Matsuzaka said to English-speaking reporters, though he declined to speak to Japanese reporters.
After the shortest outing of his major league career, Matsuzaka has allowed 28 earned runs over his last 26 1/3 innings for a whopping 9.57 ERA in his last five starts.
Matsuzaka, who turns 27 Thursdayallowed seven runs in the third inning because he couldn't locate his pitches. After his two bases-loaded walks, Scott Moore capped the misery with a grand slam to right-center.
It appeared Matsuzaka was going to wiggle out of the inning with just three runs in. With the bases loaded and no outs, Matsuzaka (14-12) struck out Aubrey Huff swinging and got Jay Payton to pop to second.
But Matsuzaka, who continually left his fastball in the fat part of the plate (as he did on Tike Redman's solo homer in the first inning), left a 2-and-2 pitch to Moore's liking.
Once Moore finished rounding the bases, Matsuzaka's night was over.
"Any pitcher is going to lose some sink or some life when they overthrow at times," Farrell said. "I think that's been the case here tonight. He's relied on what his instincts are and what his abilities are. I think the fact that he's into an inning where he's at 40 pitches and still at 94 miles per hour is a testament to his strength. But, at the same time, by relying solely on velocity, he's sacrificing some feel to pitch and overall change of speeds."
Ever courteous, he waited on the mound until Julian Tavarez came to relieve him, and patted him with his glove before leaving to a mixed chorus of boos and cheers.
The Sox didn't seem overly concerned in Matsuzaka's start last Monday when he captured his 14th win with a 13-10 decision over the Blue Jays. In that game, Matsuzaka nearly squandered a 10-1 lead, only lasting 5 1/3 innings and allowing 10 hits and seven runs.
There have been concerns of fatigue creeping in because his innings are accumulating. Last night's start was the 29th of the season for Matsuzaka, and he has thrown 184 1/3 innings. But throughout his slide, he has told the media (through his interpreter) that he doesn't feel tired.
At playoff time, Matsuzaka reasons to be the Sox' second or third choice after Josh Beckett, depending upon whether Tim Wakefield will be inserted between the righthanders. Also, if Curt Schilling continues to pitch well, he could conceivably leap over Matsuzaka.
"Right now I need to take care of my job that's been laid out in front of me," said Matsuzaka in response to whether he felt he could lose a playoff start. "There's really no benefit or positive value in worrying about something that's so far off."
The Globe's resident Daisuke-ologist, Daigo Fujiwara, researched that Matsuzaka lasted two-thirds of an inning against the Softbank Hawks July 13, 2003, and gave up seven runs (five earned) in the shortest start of his career.
He's had other stinkers, including back-to-back starts in 2004 against Orix (April 29 and May 5), in which he gave up 10 runs and nine runs respectively.
"Nobody second-guesses his will or his effort," said Francona. "It's a 2-and-2 count on Moore and if he gets him there, coming into the dugout, we have a tie score and he's going back out."
Adding to the frustration is that the offense provided Matsuzaka with a 4-1 lead, thanks to David Ortiz's two-run homer in the first and back-to-back doubles by Julio Lugo and Jacoby Ellsbury in the second inning.
That set the stage for the ugliness of the third.
Matsuzaka dug himself a huge hole by allowing a leadoff single to No. 9 hitter Gustavo Molina (who was 1 for 19 heading into the at-bat) and a double to Brian Roberts. Matsuzaka walked Redman to load the bases and then Nick Markakis to force a run home. The free-swinging Miguel Tejada pounced on Matsuzaka's first pitch and stung a single between short and third, scoring the Orioles' third run. Kevin Millar then took a bases-loaded walk to tie the game.
The Orioles, so miserable this season, continued their assault on Tavarez with three runs in the fourth, highlighted by Markakis's two-run bomb.
"Right now, it's sort of a testing time period where I need to be patient where, at the same time, I'm the one guy dragging on this team, for that I feel very apologetic," Matsuzaka said.