CLEVELAND - Boston's $100 million baseball investment strode off the mound at Jacobs Field toward the Red Sox dugout shortly before the 9 o'clock hour last night. But Daisuke Matsuzaka did not plop himself down on the bench to join his comrades between innings. Instead, he trudged down the steps and made the sharp turn toward the clubhouse, a lone figure exiting stage left well in advance of what his playoff script called for.
For the second time in as many postseason starts, Matsuzaka failed to get out of the fifth inning. The first time, it didn't much matter. Although he left down, 3-2, in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Angels, his tepid performance was negated by the ninth-inning heroics of Manny Ramírez, whose walkoff home run was an electric snapshot that overshadowed anything else. And when Boston went on to sweep, there was no need to rehash what went awry in that series.
But last night, even Manny couldn't offer Matsuzaka redemption. By the time Japan's national treasure was yanked from the game after just 4 2/3 innings, he had thrown a staggering 101 pitches and given up four runs - and received none in return.
A full hour and a half after Boston had dropped a 4-2 decision to the Indians to fall behind, 2-1, in the American League Championship Series, Matsuzaka sat despondently in front of his locker, still in uniform, staring glumly as he cradled his arms behind his head.
It was another disappointing performance for the highly touted pitcher who earned elite status in his native country for his ability to pitch masterfully in the biggest settings. He was the MVP of the World Baseball Classic, an Olympic hero, a high school legend. That clutch reputation has been lost in translation over here in the States, where Boston continues to wait breathlessly - and with growing trepidation - for Matsuzaka to demonstrate what all the fuss is about.
"I feel for him," said reliever Mike Timlin. "He's taking it to heart. We're talking about a talented pitcher. I've seen the guy in the WBC. He's fantastic. So now he's got our team and his own country to consider, and I think he's putting a little too much pressure on himself. I'd be the same way. The guy wants to win.
"We'll make sure we lift him up tomorrow."
Coming on the heels of the gruesome 13-6 collapse in Game 2, the Sox not only needed their Game 3 starter to pitch well, they needed him to pitch deep into the night to avoid a repeat of the events of the previous outing, when an early exit by Curt Schilling necessitated the use of Manny Delcarmen, Timlin, and Hideki Okajima all before the eighth inning.
And yet there were the Sox again, signaling for Timlin to bail out Matsuzaka with two on and two out in the fifth. Matsuzaka allowed a one-out single to Casey Blake, walked Grady Sizemore, fell behind Asdrubal Cabrera 2-and-0 before Cabrera punched out an RBI single, got a run-scoring fielder's choice grounder from Travis Hafner, then worked the count to 0-and-2 to the dangerous Victor Martinez before he hit a ground single to left field and ended Matsuzaka's evening.
Matsuzaka's first major transgressions came in the second, when he fell behind Ryan Garko, 2-and-0, before Garko ripped a single to center field. Matsuzaka struck out the next batter, Jhonny Peralta, but then left a fat strike over the plate for 40-year-old Kenny Lofton to hit out of the park.
"It came down to two pitches," said pitching coach John Farrell. "Other than that, he was pitching well. His delivery was smooth. His fastball had good velocity. He seemed very relaxed over the last couple of days, ready to go."
As it has been in numerous starts this season, the vexing issue for Matsuzaka was his inability to throw strikes. Although he walked only two batters, he fell behind on nine of his final 14 batters.
"He threw a lot of deep counts," said manager Terry Francona. "The more pitches you throw, especially to dangerous hitters, the better chance you give them."
In the third, Matsuzaka ran the count full on Cabrera before Cabrera tagged a two-out single up the middle. Hafner followed with a walk, and Matsuzaka ran the count to 3-and-1 on Martinez.
The next sequence proved to be Matsuzaka's finest moment of the night. He fired a 94-mile-per-hour fastball past Martinez for strike two, then caught him off-balance with a slider down and in for strike three.
It was a textbook display of the array of pitches that he has in his arsenal, a portfolio so versatile that both the Red Sox and the Yankees bid millions just for the right to negotiate with him.
By the time the Sox had declared themselves the victors of the Matsuzaka Sweepstakes, the price tag ($51 million for the posting and $52 million to sign him) had topped $100 million.
Although his regular-season results were somewhat of a mixed bag, Matsuzaka's true worth was expected to reveal itself in the playoffs, when money players earn their living.
Red Sox Nation is still waiting to see the fruits of that investment. Matsuzaka has come up empty in two consecutive situations where his team needed a front-line performance.
Farrell has been in Boston long enough to know the backlash his young Japanese hurler will be experiencing this morning.
"I understand these last two starts have been less than what was anticipated, less than what he himself expected," Farrell said. "But I firmly believe in him as a pitcher and a person. I know his character and the ability he possesses."
As the clock signaled the approach of the midnight hour, and the other Sox uniforms had been laundered and dried, Matsuzaka still hadn't showered and changed. He finally released a statement through his interpreter, which read, "As you saw, I allowed them to score first and I wasn't able to hold on. I wanted to do everything I could to win and hand it to [Tim] Wakefield in a good way."
If this series goes the distance, the scheduled pitcher for Game 7 will be the man who exited stage left far ahead of schedule last night. That could be tweaked if the Sox decide they'd rather have Schilling fit that bill.
Matsuzaka needs to alter the script - and soon. The $100 million man needs to throw strikes, win games, and prove he deserves the role of a leading man in this never-ending Red Sox drama called playoff baseball.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.