Matsuzaka, Red Sox trumped by Sabathia
NEW YORK - It was, in its own way, just like old times. There was Daisuke Matsuzaka on the mound, being his 2008 self, causing heart palpitations among the Red Sox faithful (and his teammates). Matsuzaka does not always make it easy on manager Terry Francona, who hardly needs more stress in his life. But Matsuzaka did deliver yesterday at Yankee Stadium - on all but one pitch.
It was that pitch, though, that mattered. Matsuzaka nearly matched the superlative stuff of CC Sabathia save for one blip, a home run to lead off the sixth inning that gave the Yankees all they needed in a 3-0 victory.
“It’s always a goal of mine to battle hard and to try and hang on and not let them take the lead and give our offense a chance to get going, but I let them take the lead today,’’ Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. “I usually don’t feel too many regrets over the actual pitches that I threw, but that one pitch today I am a little disappointed in.’’
Instead of being in, the pitch crept over the middle of the plate, and Robinson Cano knocked it out to left field for a homer. The Yankees led, 1-0, enough for CC Sabathia, the man seeking to earn every cent of his $161 million contract. The Sox managed just two hits, one off the big lefthander, who improved to 19-7.
Despite Matsuzaka’s one big mistake, the Sox were encouraged by Matsuzaka’s outing, no matter how dramatic it was at times.
“I think the answer that he’s back is that he got the bases loaded and got right out of that,’’ Francona said of the fifth inning. “Seems to be a comfort level there. All the things that happened, it comes down for him to a fastball that he tried to get in to Cano that stays in the middle, he hits it out. Against that lineup to give up the one, I thought was really a strong effort.’’
Sabathia was better, though, as the Yankees lowered their magic number to one, setting up a chance to clinch the American League East and sweep the Sox today.
“Sure, we want to play better,’’ said Mike Lowell, who had the Sox’ first hit, a single to center to start the fifth. “But I don’t think how we played over two games - we played very well in Baltimore, we played well in Kansas City except for maybe the first game, and we played great on the homestand. I don’t look at a sample size of two games. You never want to get swept by anyone. It would be great for us to win and to end the trip on a decent note, then come back home, take care of the last few games of the season.
“I don’t think anyone wants to see other people have a party on your account.’’
But even though the Sox haven’t liked what they saw on the scoreboard, they did see encouraging signs on the mound. It was the old Matsuzaka - though he threw more changeups to righthanded hitters than usual. Despite allowing six hits and five walks, despite having runners all over the base paths, Matsuzaka held firm. Especially in the fifth.
With Derek Jeter on first, the result of a slow roller to third, Matsuzaka walked Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira, loading the bases. Alex Rodriguez strode to the plate, a scary sight for any pitcher, especially in a scoreless tie with the bases loaded. No matter that it had been more than two years since Matsuzaka had given up a hit with the bases full (Sept. 8, 2007).
“I know Daisuke has ways of wiggling out, but that’s not a great situation to be in,’’ Francona said.
Rodriguez (1 for 12 career against Matsuzaka) hit a dribbler in front of the plate. Catcher Victor Martinez pounced on the ball and dived back to touch home, forcing Jeter. It was a play that took instincts and quickness, a play Francona called “pretty athletic.’’ Martinez snared the second out, too, grabbing a pop behind the plate by Hideki Matsui.
That left Nick Swisher, who fouled a ball past third, near the stands. Third baseman Mike Lowell caught the ball over the tarp, ending the inning, and improbably keeping Matsuzaka’s streak intact. That made hitters 0 for 20 with the bases loaded against Matsuzaka the last two seasons.
“I think we’re hoping, if we can get out of this just giving up one, it’s a big boost,’’ Lowell said. “But two quick outs, and then a third out on the popup. I think the momentum shifted to our side. We had a chance to take advantage. It just wasn’t for us.’’
Then Cano homered. And the way it was going for Sabathia, it was all he would need.
“[Sabathia] commands so well,’’ Francona said. “There’s the obvious, you look at velocity, and things like that, the breaking ball. But his command . . . his command is pretty amazing.’’
The Yankees padded their lead in eighth, Damon dumping a two-out, two-run single to short right off Billy Wagner. Both runs were unearned because shortstop Chris Woodward, who replaced Jed Lowrie at the start of the inning, dropped the ball at third during a rundown on pinch runner Brett Gardner, who was caught when Jose Molina failed to get down a bunt.
So with nothing to show against Sabathia or the Yankees bullpen, the Sox dropped their second straight in New York. But Matsuzaka continued to improve, even with a new catcher in Martinez, who singled in the ninth to extend his hitting streak to 25 games.
Even with games to win before the Sox celebrate their own spot in the postseason, there were moments of hope for October.
“I know that [Sabathia] has been hot late in the season, so we had our work cut out for us today,’’ Matsuzaka said. “I really wanted to do what I could to hold their hitters. I think that they pushed really hard, and I held on as best as I could. Overall, I think it went OK. I wanted to keep that shutout going as long as I could. I felt confident out there pitching today.’’
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.