Matsuzaka flirts with no-hitter
PHILADELPHIA — It seemed hearts would stop throughout Citizens Bank Park, and all over Japan, when the baseball shot back toward the pitcher. Jayson Werth had smoked it, had done all he could to break up the bid to make history.
However, Daisuke Matsuzaka, who had not allowed a hit to that point, two outs into the seventh inning, was having none of it. His glove hand was up, raised as part of his follow-through, and the ball found its way inside, to the surprise of everyone — including the man now holding the ball.
“I saw the ball, so I put my glove up, but I didn’t actually think that I was going to make the catch,’’ Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. “But I think it was at that point that my teammates started thinking that maybe I had a chance.’’
Matsuzaka nearly chuckled as he walked off the mound, the half-smile a testament to the fact that he had snared a ball that had a serious chance of being a hit. Not only had he gotten through the seventh inning by facing three of the Phillies’ best hitters, but Matsuzaka had contributed one of those signature defensive plays, the ones that get replayed over and over.
“Maybe that rag ball drill is worth it after all,’’ manager Terry Francona said after the Red Sox’ 5-0 win last night, referring to an exercise from spring training in which rag balls are hit at pitchers to test their reflexes. “I know they hate it. I don’t know if it’s self-defense, or if he’s that good. But it seemed like maybe the stars were aligned.’’
They weren’t quite. That hit did happen in the eighth, and Matsuzaka’s expression changed just briefly. He barely flinched, the slightest disappointment crossing his face. Juan Castro, in the lineup only because shortstop Jimmy Rollins had been placed on the disabled list earlier in the day, broke up the no-hit bid with a broken-bat flare to left, just beyond the grasp of the charging Marco Scutaro.
“I know all the country of Japan hates me right now,’’ Scutaro said, smiling. “I just say, ‘Sorry! My bad!’ ’’
The shortstop’s glove was as outstretched as it could be, the arm yearning to make the catch. He couldn’t, the ball dropping inches beyond, as the Phillies’ No. 8 hitter ended the bid just four outs shy of completion.
In the dugout, Francona thought for a second that Scutaro had made the miraculous happen, as the shortstop’s body shielded the play. The manager’s yells soon subsided. The no-hitter was gone.
“I was just trying to make contact,’’ Castro said. “I wasn’t trying to pull it. It just happened. It was pretty close. And the way they were making plays, I thought they were going to make another nice one.’’
Matsuzaka had to settle for eight innings of one-hit ball, having allowed four walks and striking out five. He got the win (with help from a hitless ninth from Daniel Bard), improving to 3-1 and lowering his ERA from 7.89 to 5.76.
“He got in a rhythm,’’ Francona said of Matsuzaka. “He got it, he threw it. That’s the best fastball we’ve seen. He established that, his slider, threw some of the better changeups we’ve seen.
“That was fun to watch.’’
Said catcher Jason Varitek, “He was strong through the zone again. His slider was late, his cutter was short, and had just enough mixes of some changeups in there. He had a low breaking-ball zone, able to get some breaking balls down in the count called. Had some good life on his fastball.’’
The defensive play by Matsuzaka — which Varitek called “the hardest ball I’ve ever seen a pitcher catch’’ — wasn’t the only one of note. There was Adrian Beltre’s snare of a liner in the eighth, as the third baseman then made the throw across the diamond to complete a double play. There were others, too, by Dustin Pedroia at second and Jeremy Hermida in left.
And in the end, there was Matsuzaka’s pitching, exactly what the club needed.
“Unbelievable,’’ said David Ortiz. “His fastball was there, his breaking pitches were there. To pitch a game like that against these guys, that’s not an easy thing to do.’’
Matsuzaka contributed with his bat as well as his arm. After singling in his first at-bat in the third inning, he successfully sacrificed in the fifth, bunting Scutaro (double) to third, from where he scored when J.D. Drew dropped a ball in front of left fielder Raul Ibanez with two outs.
The Sox would score three more runs in the inning, one when Ortiz rocked a double to right to score Jacoby Ellsbury (walk), and two when Beltre doubled for the second time in the game, plating Drew and Ortiz. That was plenty for the win.
Matsuzaka, meanwhile, was hardly bothered by the weight of his potential accomplishment. He seemed unaffected.
“I thought he was great the whole game,’’ Francona said. “He was having fun with his at-bats, you could see it. He got the bunt down, he got the hit. I thought that’s as relaxed as we’ve seen him.’’
And this season, it was as good as they’ve seen him. He was, as Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said, “just wild enough to be good, if that makes sense.’’
So there Matsuzaka was, in the eighth inning, still having not given up a hit. While it might not have been as dominant a performance as the recent Red Sox no-hitters, there was some of the luck that is always needed.
“He had some favors, so some momentum was building,’’ Varitek said. “And then the softest one of them all fell.’’