After hard lesson, Matsuzaka softens stance

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 19, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Finally, after all the frustration and all the drama, it appears that Daisuke Matsuzaka is ready for a little bit of honesty. Having derailed his 2009 season because of a groin injury that he declined to discuss with the Red Sox, Matsuzaka rededicated himself to conditioning this winter. And then, when soreness developed in his back last week, he actually mentioned it to his bosses.

It’s a step for a pitcher with so much pride and so much determination to succeed that he has sometimes eschewed his own health for the opportunity to compete.

“I feel like I have a pretty high pain tolerance,’’ Matsuzaka said yesterday through interpreter Masa Hoshino. “So if I could tolerate the pain and still somehow play through and be able to do what I had to do, I think I would have taken a lot of that on by myself.

“I definitely don’t want to make the same mistakes that were made last year, and so right now I think it’s important for me to talk about my condition and share that with the team in as much detail as possible.’’

Had he felt the same soreness last season, he said, he might not have been so forthcoming. This year, Matsuzaka was open with the Sox, who paused his spring training activities until he can see the doctors today for his physical.

“It’s important to have that dialogue, there’s no question,’’ pitching coach John Farrell said. “Which we are having. At the same time, he’s a tremendous competitor and wants the ball.

“He wanted to be on the mound, and a lot of times pitchers or players will go out less than 100 percent. Because of his competitive nature, he probably pushed himself [in 2009] past the point where he might have been the most effective and, as a result of that set of experiences, there’s that dialogue that has been very open this offseason.’’

Though Matsuzaka said he’s getting better every day - even saying, “I wouldn’t go so far to call it an injury, really’’ - the Sox are being cautious. Yesterday, in his first comments to the American media since the injury was revealed, he said it might just be fatigue from a long winter of dedicated training.

“I think I could throw if I really had to, even now,’’ he said.

But instead of continuing his preparation, Matsuzaka has taken time off, as the Sox requested. He said it has been “a little bit stressful,’’ especially after an offseason of the best preparation he’s had as a member of the team. That part shows, both in a physique that looks markedly different than last year, and in words that specify that his expectations are high for the coming year.

“He kind of mentioned to us that if it was during the season, he could probably pitch through it,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “We do appreciate his openness and being honest, so we don’t turn something into something it shouldn’t be.

“I think there’s better communication. Good players get to be good [because] they want to compete. If you didn’t go out there when you weren’t 100 percent, nobody would ever be on the field. The more you communicate, the better.’’

It has taken Matsuzaka three full seasons in the United States to get himself comfortable. He has gotten to a point where coming to work with the Sox feels like coming to work in Japan. He knows his teammates, his coaches, his way around Boston and Fort Myers. He knows what is expected of him, and seems willing to work with the team toward productivity and victory.

Much of that dedication, the change in attitude and motivation, comes from the disappointment of last season. Because he got ready too fast and injured his groin in the process, the mantra this time has been one of patience. Even before the back problem, the Sox were taking a cautious approach to their presumed fifth starter.

“We want to be sure that ‘the pitching foundation’ from a physical standpoint was done in detail, and Daisuke’s done a tremendous job throughout the entire offseason learning from his experiences of a year ago,’’ Farrell said. “There’s been a lot of dialogue throughout the course of the offseason in that area on just his overall work.

“We have a game plan for every pitcher, how they progress towards the start of the regular season.

“We have to be prudent and learn from the experiences that he went through a year ago, and factor those in going forward.’’

As Matsuzaka said, “I want to be the kind of player that the team can really rely on.’’

That is exactly what he wasn’t last season. He barely pitched, making just 12 starts for the major league club, and spent much of his year running sprints in the summer sunshine in Florida. He acknowledged yesterday that it was the unreported groin injury that hijacked his season and took him away from his team.

“As for the groin injury, being able to move my lower body effectively is really my lifeline in how I pitch,’’ Matsuzaka said. “I think I was able to get away with it a little bit during the [World Baseball Classic], but once you start throwing in the big leagues, it’s a different stage, it’s a different level of competition.

“I just wasn’t able to get away with it. That was really the learning experience for me. It was a difficult season, but I’m not going to let that go to waste.

“By going through that experience, I think I’m going to be able to come out on the other side a lot stronger, and hopefully be able to transfer some of that into this upcoming season.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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