An ace without the title

Matsuzaka (7-0) willing to defer

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 18, 2008

The numbers, of course, belong to an ace. Because who could argue with an unblemished 7-0 record, a 2.15 ERA, and a team that hasn't lost over the pitcher's last 11 starts? Those are All-Star numbers. Those are top-of-the-rotation numbers. Those are ace numbers.

Not that Daisuke Matsuzaka was - or should be - making any claim to that title after yesterday afternoon's 5-3 win over the Brewers, in which Matsuzaka won yet again, allowing just two runs (both unearned).

"As a player I want to keep winning, but I think that Boston's ace is Josh Beckett," Matsuzaka said unequivocally.

OK, so he's got a point there. And there is that slight unease that comes with Matsuzaka's starts, the question of whether he's going to nibble too much in this game, or throw too many pitches in that. Still, the numbers are undeniable. Matsuzaka moved to 3-0 in his last four games, with a 1.05 ERA, having given up just three earned runs in 25 2/3 innings. He's also walked 15 batters.

As for those walks counts, which tumbled to three in last Saturday's game against Minnesota and just two yesterday, perhaps there's a solution. Maybe.

"I guess I've stopped thinking that I'm actually a pitcher that can paint the corners, so I'm dwelling a little bit less on that now," Matsuzaka said.

Still, it was a bit of a nervous start. For anyone who has watched the tribulations of Matsuzaka over his Red Sox career, the three balls and no strikes with which he started yesterday's game, in pitching to Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks, had to serve as a warning sign. Would this be another one of those games? Or would he, as he did in his last outing, settle down?

He would. Though he did walk Weeks, he walked only one more batter in his 6 2/3 innings, and allowed seven hits, while striking out six. And one of those hits, a two-run home run by Mike Cameron, came after an error at third base by Kevin Youkilis on a ball by Weeks.

"He got into a rhythm as the game progressed," manager Terry Francona said. "Just he left a cutter out over the middle to Cameron. He did a good job. He threw his offspeed pitches for strikes. He had the one long inning; other than that everything was 12, 13, 10, 11 [pitches]. He was around the plate and he established he was going to throw strikes."

Matsuzaka has been particularly dominant against National League opponents, winning his last three games. He has a minuscule 0.46 ERA (one earned run in 19 2/3 innings) over his last three regular-season interleague games, with a 4-1 record and 1.60 ERA overall against the NL in five starts.

Though Matsuzaka certainly pitched well, he had just one 1-2-3 inning, the fourth, although the Brewers weren't able to capitalize. After Prince Fielder doubled to open the second, then was moved to third on a bunt, Milwaukee stranded him at third. The Brewers had the bases loaded in the fifth with two outs, before Cameron flied to center. Then there was the ultimate: With no outs in the sixth, the Brewers had Ryan Braun (single) on third and Fielder (double) on second, and couldn't get either home.

When Milwaukee finally got runners home, on that home run by Cameron, and Matsuzaka followed by allowing a single to Braun, that was it for the starter - especially with the lefthanded-hitting Fielder coming to bat.

So, while Beckett retains the ace label, there was one important, ace-like quality Matsuzaka possessed yesterday - the ability to stop a losing streak.

"I was well aware of our [four-game] losing streak going in there, so I definitely wanted to do what I could to put a stop to that," Matsuzaka said.

"As for my confidence in my pitching and facing the batters, I certainly feel less anxiety in facing these batters. I wouldn't say I feel completely comfortable, but more comfortable than last year."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at

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