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Bob Ryan

With him, it's survival mode

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / October 4, 2008
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ANAHEIM, Calif. - Why was this night different from all the other nights?

Oh, that's right. It wasn't.

Daisuke Matsuzaka was pitching, so that meant it was going to be an adventure by definition. He came in with a certain M.O., and he definitely did not disappoint. This was no celebrity double. This was the real Dice-K, all right.

"Surviving Dice-K." If you were writing a screenplay based on last night's backbreaking 7-5 conquest of the Angels, that would be an appropriate title.

It shouldn't have been that hard. The Red Sox should not have needed to be sweating out the late-inning details. They shouldn't have needed to summon Jonathan Papelbon in the eighth. They shouldn't have needed that ninth-inning leadoff double by Big Papi or that majestic, game-winning two-run homer by J.D. Drew in the ninth. They should have been cruising home.

Look, it was fun. The late innings were loaded with drama. But Terry Francona doesn't need postseason drama. He needs a guy who's been credited with 18 wins to get his team into the seventh inning of a game in which he's had leads of 4-0 and 5-1, and Daisuke Matsuzaka couldn't do that - again.

Dice-K remains a puzzle. He went five innings, giving up eight hits and three earned runs. He struck out five and walked three. He threw, ahem, 108 pitches.

It was nothing we haven't seen before. He has now made 30 starts this season and this was the 15th time his night's work was done in fewer than six innings. Yet through a combination of luck, run support, luck, the whims of nature, good fortune, luck, mystical forces unknown, and luck, he managed to squeeze out 18 wins, compiling, when you mix in last night's no-decision (there should be a stat called "blown win" to go along with "blown save"), a 7-3-5 record in those 15 abbreviated starts.

There was early hope that last night would be different. He threw first-pitch strikes to the first seven batters he faced, and 10 of the first 13. He went through the first 11 batters by throwing back-to-back pitches out of the strike zone just once. He had a 1-2-3 second inning in which he threw a scant (for him) 12 pitches.

He was up, 4-0, before he ever took the mound, courtesy of a two-out/none-on first-inning outburst that featured a three-run missile off the bat of Jason Bay, a shot that landed onto those famous center-field rocks. For those of you scoring at home, the postseason home run count reads Manny 2, Manny's Replacement 2.

Dice-K gave up a run in the first, but the Sox got that one back for him with another two-out/none-on flurry, this one involving back-to-back doubles by Alex Cora and Jacoby Ellsbury. So it was 5-1 after three, and Dice-K had thrown a quite manageable 47 pitches.

But he did have to work in the third, when the Angels got two-out singles from Mark Teixeira and Vladimir Guerrero in advance of a bang-bang play at first when Torii Hunter thought he had beaten out a ball hit to Cora at short (replays showed he hadn't).

Did that get Matsuzaka thinking? Who knows?

What we know was that he began to labor in the fourth, which he began by walking Juan Rivera on four pitches. He was able to limit the damage to one run, and there was still a lot to like, what with strikeouts of Howie Kendrick and Garret Anderson, whom he got with a nice breaking pitch to end the inning and leave two men stranded.

That was the prelude to an extremely tedious fifth.

Perhaps all you need to know is that he went 3 and 2 on the first four batters, consuming 29 pitches, and walking Teixeira and Guerrero to start the inning before giving up a single to Hunter that made it 5-3 and left men on first and second with no one out. Once again he found the right pitch to save himself from disaster, striking out Rivera on the eighth pitch of his at-bat, and then getting Kendrick (fly ball) and pinch hitter Kendry Morales (pop to third), thus concluding his evening's work. It had been a 36-pitch inning.

The glass-half-full view would be that he kept the team in the game. Francona was, predictably, kind and generous. "He finds a way to make pitches, and those were two tough innings," he said, alluding to the fourth and fifth.

But it seems to me a more practical view was that he had pitched a game like so many others he's had this year, which is to say that it was a tease.

Yes, this is baseball in the early 21st century, and the standards have changed. No one is looking for complete games any longer. Eight is generally a stretch. But if you're a true 18-game winner, seven is not too much to ask, and six is a minimum request.

But Dice-K pushes the patience envelope. He failed to reach the sixth inning 11 times in 29 starts during the regular season, averaging 96 pitches per in those 11 stints. That computes to a 173 nine-inning total, and that's not acceptable. When Dice-K starts, the manager knows he'd better have the bullpen ready at least an inning earlier than normal.

He put his mates in survival mode, and the important thing is that they did survive him. Hideki Okajima and Justin Masterson had a tightrope walk through the seventh, when the youngster struck out two and walked two, one of them forcing in the fourth run. Papelbon did a superb job in the eighth, being stuck with a tough blown save after arriving on the scene following a Chone Figgins leadoff triple. He retired all three men he faced, but the second one, Anderson, was able to hit a fly ball deep enough to score Figgins with the tying run.

But Papelbon wound up as the winning pitcher when David Ortiz opened the ninth with a long double off Francisco Rodriguez and Drew took him deep with an altitudinous blast to deep right-center.

It was all great theater. Too bad it was necessary.

"Surviving Daisuke." Francona doesn't want to see a sequel.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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