Matsuzaka masters Jays as Red Sox roll
As Daisuke Matsuzaka walked off the mound at the end of the seventh inning last night, he never raised his head. Many in the crowd of 37,609, especially around the Red Sox dugout, rose and cheered, ushering him back toward his teammates with sounds of support that he has not always heard at Fenway Park. He didn’t acknowledge them, but it didn’t matter.
Matsuzaka had just finished his best performance since 2008, allowing just one run on three hits over seven innings in a 6-1 Red Sox win over the Blue Jays. He struck out nine, his most since April 1, 2008, when he also fanned that number. It was a revelatory performance, an “Aha!’’ moment, and a reminder of just how good he can be.
“What’s happened before, I’m not sure that it matters now,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “I think he feels good about himself. He should. He threw the ball really well. Again, he challenged hitters, he attacked hitters. It was good to see.’’
Those moments haven’t come often enough for Matsuzaka, especially of late. He has instead felt like a burden to his teammates, spent his days running sprints with teenagers in Fort Myers, Fla., and rehabbed more than enough for a career. He was ready to pitch last night, and he did — very, very well. With enough offense from his teammates, the Sox set up a chance for the sweep today.
“I thought he was terrific,’’ Francona said. “Aggressive with his fastball. No walks. The strikeouts, with nine. But he held the fastball from the first inning through the seventh. You get that many fly balls — and I’m not talking about a bunch of lineouts — but that will tell you right there he was aggressive and confident in his fastball, and it showed.’’
Boston has now won seven of the nine games on this homestand. With another win today, the Sox would slip past Toronto and into third place in the division, as they get set to play 11 of their next 13 on the road.
With the exception of two innings, Matsuzaka had kicked off his season well, if a month late. Even though he ultimately allowed seven runs in his first outing of the season and five in his second, that was the product of a brutal last inning in the first game and a brutal first inning in the next game. Despite his results, he had showed flashes.
“In my last outing, I allowed some hits in the first inning and . . . I wanted to approach the game without over-thinking it and trying to keep things simple,’’ Matsuzaka (2-1) said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. “After that tough beginning to the game last time, I tried to keep things simple and I thought that things improved. I just wanted to keep that going. So from my first pitch tonight I treated it as a continuation of the last game.’’
He added, “I think even when I was not throwing yet, if there were any moments of downtime I’d sort of start over-thinking a little bit. So I did my best to eliminate those pockets of dead time, and I think that helped. I also think that from a technical standpoint I made a few minor adjustments.’’
The adjustments worked, as Matsuzaka blasted through the Jays with a show of power, saying he felt comfortable with his fastball. More impressive, though, were the walks. There weren’t any. That was significant, even if Matsuzaka would only say that “was not a huge, huge deal for me. I wasn’t pitching to avoid the walk.’’
He might have been helped by a few hitters, the Jays a notoriously free-swinging team. But it wasn’t all Toronto, a team that can send a fastball a long way if a location is missed.
Matsuzaka allowed just one hit over the first five innings, an infield single by John Buck in the third. The sixth inning presented slightly more difficulty, but not by much.
Buck led off the sixth with a double to left, and moved up on a wild pitch. Travis Snider struck out swinging, fooled by yet another fastball. When Fred Lewis followed with a double off the Wall, scoring Buck with the first run for Toronto, it appeared Matsuzaka might be coming undone.
He wasn’t, as he induced a foul to first by Aaron Hill and a swinging strikeout by Adam Lind on a cutter. Matsuzaka’s pitch count stood at 95. He returned for the seventh, needing just 11 pitches to get through. That was it.
The Sox already had scored two in the first when Jason Varitek stood at the plate in the second. He smashed his sixth homer, the ball coming down near the cars in a garage on Lansdowne Street, as he continues to wield an impressive bat. Boston’s fourth run came in the fourth on Varitek’s single and an RBI double by Darnell McDonald.
“Boy, he took a nice swing,’’ Francona said of Varitek’s home run. “He’s done a good job. That’s stating the obvious.’’
The Sox scored two more in the fifth when J.D. Drew hit a bunt single, and Kevin Youkilis and Mike Lowell walked. Drew scored on a wild pitch, and after another walk Bill Hall grounded into an RBI fielder’s choice. And there could have been more earlier, as Lowell grounded into an inning-ending double play in the third with the bases loaded.
“We had some opportunities that we didn’t cash in on,’’ Francona said. “But we were patient, we got in the bullpen. It’s nice to have something to show for it. I wish we would have had more. But we’re swinging at strikes. We do that, it certainly helps.’’
Throwing the way Matsuzaka did also helps. He was as good as he’s been with the Sox, pitching like he hadn’t in nearly two years. There has been a void in the Sox rotation, the pitcher always giving just tantalizing glimpses of what could be. There’s no telling whether Matsuzaka can replicate this performance in his next outing, scheduled to be in New York, or whether he will revert back to what he has been too often.
“It’s not easy to have an outing like this every time, and it’s not easy to maintain this level of pitching,’’ Matsuzaka said. “But I think I went through the offseason training with this sort of pitching as my goal. It was the first time I was able to do that tonight, and I’m glad.’’
So were the Red Sox.