Red Sox 2, Athletics 1

Red Sox silence Athletics

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / July 20, 2010

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The last time Daisuke Matsuzaka started at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, it marked the beginning of the end to his 2009 season. After that game — in which he lasted just one inning, giving up five runs — the pitcher wouldn’t start for another month in the major leagues in a fractured season that was defined by Matsuzaka’s lengthy time spent in exile in Fort Myers, Fla.

As Red Sox manager Terry Francona said yesterday, “That was a bad day.’’

Not so last night, as Matsuzaka threw one of his better games of the season against the A’s in a 2-1 win, a performance that nearly rivaled his one-hitter against the Phillies May 22. He walked just two batters, a mark of a successful outing for Matsuzaka, who moved to 5-0 this season when walking two or fewer batters.

“He was tremendous,’’ Francona said. “First-pitch strikes, 19 of 24. Power to his pitches, slider, cutter. Two walks. He made a mistake to [Rajai] Davis, other than that, he was really good.’’

Matsuzaka gave up only two hits, the second knocking him out of the game with two outs in the seventh, even though he had thrown only 89 pitches. But, with the Sox starting this 10-game West Coast trip in a funk, Francona was not about to risk the lead. So he went to Daniel Bard with two men in scoring position, the best chance the A’s had created all night. Bard got Gabe Gross to pop to third base.

“Huge win for us to start this trip,’’ Adrian Beltre said. “This whole West Coast trip is big for us. We haven’t played the best we can the last 10 to 15 games, so it’s better to start the road trip in a good way.’’

And that started with a win for Matsuzaka, who was on his game from the beginning. Part of that comes from a new-and-improved pregame routine the Sox have instituted after conversations between Matsuzaka and the coaching staff. Matsuzaka has not given up a first-inning run in his last two starts.

“Three starts ago, recognizing that there was some first-inning struggles, felt like it might be worth changing up how much throwing he did at 6:15 basically for a 7:15 game with about a 12- or 14-minute cool-down period,’’ pitching coach John Farrell said. “At that time it seemed like it took him a full inning to really kind of get into the rhythm of the game.

“So he went back to a pregame routine that was reminiscent of 2007, and it’s allowed him to throw early in the day, not as many throws in total long-toss and bullpen work leading up to the start of the game. His warm-ups end about seven or eight minutes prior to the game, so it’s allowed him to maintain a rhythm that he develops in the bullpen warming up and carries into the game. He’s had some very good results of late.’’

Matsuzaka, who is 5-2 with a 2.89 ERA over his last nine starts, retired his first seven batters, a far cry from some of the rough openings he has endured. His line was blemished only by a hanging slider to Davis with one out in the third inning, which Davis sent over the wall in left field. That put the A’s on top, but they wouldn’t stay there for long.

The Sox, who have been struggling to score of late, came back with two runs in the top of the fourth. Former Oakland outfielder Eric Patterson tripled to start the inning and came home on David Ortiz’s sacrifice fly. After a fly to center field by Kevin Youkilis, Beltre took a pitch from Ben Sheets and deposited it beyond the left-center wall to give the Sox the lead, the first of his three hits.

“We all know Adrian’s hamstring is killing him, but if he hits balls that far, not a real big issue,’’ Francona said.

It was a needed win for a team that had lost eight of 11.

“Looking at the past couple days, they’ve been playing really well and we’ve been struggling a little bit,’’ Patterson said of his former club, which had won five straight. “It’s kind of important for us to get out and get started, not only for the road trip, for the series. Just kind of set the tone for us and get back on the winning track.’’

Through the first six innings, Matsuzaka had allowed just the homer by Davis. He had walked only one batter, Daric Barton leading off the fourth, and had simply controlled the A’s through the early going.

He was efficient. He was effective. He was all those things that demonstrate what he can be, but what he so rarely is. Over the first six innings, Matsuzaka needed just 71 pitches, including a nine-pitch sixth, a span that usually puts him in triple digits. Not last night. Not when he was sitting at 93 to 94 miles per hour with his fastball, striking out a batter per inning, and showing everyone a tantalizing glimpse of his stuff at its best.

“He was able to throw strikes with every pitch that he has, he even broke out his changeup that he hasn’t used that much recently and it was pretty effective for him,’’ catcher Kevin Cash said. “When he can get that cut fastball in to lefties and then just getting ahead with his fastball down and away to righties, he’s going to have good outings.’’

And that was exactly what he did, exactly when the Sox needed it.

“There were countless small improvements that I would want to make throughout my outing tonight, but this is the type of pitching that I really want to be able to continue to do as the season goes on,’’ Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino.

That’s what the Sox want, too.

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