Dice-K takes the fifth

Matsuzaka finding his spot in rotation

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 3, 2010

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If this is what you’re going to get — one good start, one bad — for a guy who is supposed to be your fifth starter, you take it, don’t you?

Josh Beckett is out of the picture for likely another month, but the five guys currently in the Red Sox’ rotation must pitch to their capabilities, Daisuke Matsuzaka included. Last night, he shook off a three-run first inning, no thanks to a terrible play in left field by Jeremy Hermida, and pitched 6 2/3 innings, allowing 10 hits and three runs to earn the decision in a 6-4 victory over the Oakland A’s at Fenway.

Matsuzaka, now 4-2, won 33 games in his first two seasons, then injuries and poor conditioning cost him his third year in the big leagues. This season, Matsuzaka was American-ized. He went to Athletes’ Performance in Arizona to get in tip-top shape, the type of conditioning Japanese pitchers don’t normally do in the offseason. And then he was slowed by a back problem that put him on the disabled list. Since coming back, Matsuzaka’s performances have been inconsistent. He started with a couple of rough ones, and since then it’s been one good, one bad, one good, one bad, and last night would have to classified as good.

Last time out (in an eight-walk performance against the Royals), he said he had some residual lower-body soreness from taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning in a 5-0 win at Philadelphia May 22.

“In the first inning, there was a gap between what I was trying to do and how my body was responding,’’ Matsuzaka said last night through intrepreter Masa Hoshino. But after the first inning I was able to make an adjustment in terms of how I was able to use my lower body, and it got better from there.’’

Catcher Jason Varitek thought Matsuzaka was on from the start.

“He threw the ball well even in the first inning,’’ Varitek said. “He hung a breaking ball to [Kurt] Suzuki [for a two-run homer]. After that, he settled in and made some pitches. I’d say in about the third inning he settled into his delivery.’’

Varitek said the difference between this start and the one against Kansas City, in which he lasted just 4 2/3 innings, was “we couldn’t get a borderline call. He couldn’t really harness back in. He had a better feel for his cutter today. Gave up a couple hits early on. He kept a good mix. He used both sides of the plate on his fastball. It’s kind of where he’s been. Even though he had a bunch of walks, he wasn’t that far off last time.’’

After eight walks last time out, he did not allow a free pass to the A’s. He did give up 10 hits, but the Sox would rather see more hits and fewer walks. At least then, the fielders have a chance to make a play.

“I was thinking during my previous outing that if I’m going to give up all those walks, I’m better off just trying to let them hit,’’ Matsuzaka said. “Considering what happened in my last outing, yes, I wanted to be more aggressive about throwing strikes.’’

That’s music to everyone’s ears. Nobody wants to watch Matsuzaka, who threw 109 pitches, walk people. Nobody wants to see him nibble and then pull his Houdini act. He did that enough last night. He put two on in the fourth, but got out of it with no damage. When he put two on the seventh, manager Terry Francona seemed to time it perfectly, getting him out of there in favor of Daniel Bard, who got out of the jam.

The Sox will take this every fifth day. Who knows, maybe Matsuzaka will break the pattern and start stringing together quality starts. If he’s the No. 5 starter, especially when Beckett returns, what he’s giving isn’t so bad. It’s not $103 million worth, considering the posting fee and six-year, $52 million deal. Right now, it’s at least 50 cents on the dollar, and with any luck Matsuzaka will give the Sox more than that over time.

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