Red Sox 4, Angels 1

Loaded Dice

Matsuzaka shows off top form in his return

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / September 16, 2009

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There was a weight on Daisuke Matsuzaka. He knew how he had pitched, knew how little he had helped his team over the first five months of the season. He had disappeared to Florida, leaving the Red Sox and their rotation to carry on without him, even as he was relegated to sprints in the Fort Myers sun alongside minor leaguers so young they barely could imagine the majors.

“On the road back, I’ve been a burden on my teammates more than anything and I feel that I owe them,’’ Matsuzaka said last night through interpreter Masa Hoshino after making his first start for the Red Sox in nearly three months and beating the Angels, 4-1, with six scoreless innings. “There’s not much left in the season, but in the limited time, in the limited opportunity that I do have, I want to show my appreciation to my teammates and to the fans by contributing in a positive way.’’

His teammates noticed. After the game, as Matsuzaka was near his locker, Clay Buchholz walked up to him with words of encouragement and a pat on the back. There might be little time left, but the pitcher made his presence felt, beginning to make up for the time lost.

Not only has he lost significant bulk, and gained shoulder strength, but he returned a changed man. At least for one outing, Matsuzaka was exactly what he had not been in his eight previous starts this year. He was efficient, and effective.

While the true reviews will take more time, the beginning was good for Matsuzaka. He beat the Sox’ likely foe in the first round of the playoffs, a goal that got closer for Boston as it gained another game on the Rangers. The Sox’ wild-card lead is now six games in the loss column.

“I’ve never struggled as much as I have this year, so in that sense I think it’s a little bit special,’’ Matsuzaka said about the win.

The Angels didn’t collect their first hit until the fifth inning, when Kendry Morales led off with a single to right. With one out, Erick Aybar got a single that pushed Morales to third. Then Aybar stole second. But Jeff Mathis struck out swinging and Chone Figgins did too, keeping the scoreless tie intact.

“In that situation, I resigned myself to maybe having one run score, but I also knew the other pitcher [John Lackey] was pitching very well and I really didn’t want to let in any runs,’’ Matsuzaka said. “So I got the ideal result that I wanted.’’

Matsuzaka lasted through the first batter of the seventh inning, finishing his outing on a walk to Morales, and on his 93d pitch of the night. He walked off the mound to a far different reception than the boos after his last start in the majors. On that day, June 19, Matsuzaka was jeered after giving up six runs in four-plus innings. Last night, he was given an ovation, taking off his cap for a short wave at the cheering crowd of 37,942. He said he was “grateful.’’

“It was nice to see for him, because everybody forgets this guy won us 18 games last year,’’ catcher Jason Varitek said. “And it was nice for him to go out there and finally have some results. You want to see somebody succeed, because he’s a valuable part of this team.’’

The Sox got the first run of the game home in the sixth inning, putting Matsuzaka in line for the win. After an Alex Gonzalez single to the Wall, Jacoby Ellsbury laid down a perfect bunt. The ball traveled a third of the way up the first base line and, with a slight bobble by Morales, a throw wasn’t made. There were men on first and second with no outs. So Dustin Pedroia tried his hand at a sacrifice.

While it didn’t quite work out as planned, it was all good. Lackey looked at third, where Gonzalez was headed, and made a throw that skipped past Chone Figgins. Gonzalez came home, Ellsbury went to third, and Pedroia to second on the error. After Jason Bay walked the bases full again, David Ortiz lined a single that just dropped in front of Juan Rivera’s glove in left to score another.

But the night was all Matsuzaka’s. Heading out to the mound before the game with an embarrassing record (1-5) and ERA (8.23), he demonstrated solid velocity in the first, with fastballs in the 93-94 mile per hour range. Even though it took him six pitches to walk Figgins, after starting the leadoff man with an 0-2 count and reviving thoughts of the old Matsuzaka, he got out of the inning with just 18 pitches.

Pitching coach John Farrell said Matsuzaka was “very comparable to the majority of 2007.’’ He said his appearance “is similar to the first year he was here in terms of weight, body composition, the kind of shape he is in.’’

“It’s a huge shot in the arm for us,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “He really stayed in his delivery. He didn’t have to try to reach back and spin off the mound or get off balance.

“I think we all feel like it’s realistic that he can come back in his next start and not necessarily match the numbers, but be the same pitcher. That’s what we’re really shooting for. Just to have some consistency out of what he’s throwing up there every time he starts.’’

To get to this point, Matsuzaka had to survive a major change of plans. He had to abandon his teammates, his place in the rotation. Last night, though, he might have demonstrated that he deserves to be back (his next start is likely to be Sunday).

“I’ve never had to take time in the middle of a season to try and get myself back to pitching the way I can and trying to build up strength,’’ Matsuzaka said. “Even though I made it back and I got the win, when I was actually doing my training during those months, I was not always sure if I could ever get back though I tried my best to believe that one day I would come back.

“But more than anything, I think that the pitcher you saw [last night] was clearly different from the pitcher you saw at the beginning of the season. I think the time that I spent over the past three months was definitely worthwhile.’’

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