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Matsuzaka finally delivers

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 16, 2011

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LAKELAND, Fla. — Everyone knows he has this type of performance in him.

He’s done it before. He can go out and dominate. Maybe the stars have to align. Perhaps these performances are more flukes than anything.

Whatever resulted in yesterday’s five shutout innings against a very good Tigers lineup, it didn’t matter. Daisuke Matsuzaka needed it.

No, he wouldn’t have been shipped off to Pittsburgh or Cleveland, because the Red Sox can’t afford to thin out their rotation with only Tim Wakefield as depth. Matsuzaka is coming off two disappointing and injury-filled seasons, and in his first three starts this spring, he allowed 12 hits and 13 runs over 8 2/3 innings for an 11.42 ERA.

And no one was surprised. So at least yesterday he was able to halt the negativity that has been following him. Did it have anything to do with changing his between-starts regimen by spreading his long toss and bullpen sessions over two days rather than doing them on the same day?

If indeed it does, it will be Curt Young’s first major accomplishment as Red Sox pitching coach.

“The way I adjusted for the outing, the outcome was very good,’’ Matsuzaka said through interpreter Kenta Yamada. “I will continue this style in the future outings.’’

Imagine if a turnaround were that simple? Everyone in the organization likely would say, “Duh, why didn’t we do this four years ago?’’

Matsuzaka has been the ultimate challenge. No pitcher has been poked, prodded, adjusted, tweaked, and broken down more. Whatever it is about his mechanics, he just can’t seem to keep it consistent.

He can’t, as pitching coaches say, “repeat his delivery’’ enough. So he pitches these long, tedious games, which bring out the eye-rolling, even from teammates at times.

But when he is out there throwing strikes and not trying to pick at the corners, challenging hitters and throwing his breaking ball for strikes, well, his stuff is as good as anyone’s.

“I don’t think it’s a lack of challenging hitters, it’s just a case of getting the ball where he wants it to go,’’ said catcher Jason Varitek. “He made quality strikes today as opposed to getting a bad result on a misfire. Sometimes when you are locating better, you get a misfire and it’s a popup.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of him trying to throw around the strike zone. He just needs to repeat what he’s doing.’’

Once in a while, you see why the Red Sox took $51 million of John Henry’s money and threw it into a blind posting fee for the chance to negotiate a six-year, $52 million contract with Scott Boras on an airplane. Matsuzaka has this year and next year remaining on his contract, at $10 million per year.

Every scout who saw him yesterday was impressed. But they know it may be a different story next time.

“I know he was better, sharper,’’ said Varitek. “I had him in his first outing.

“He didn’t throw a breaking ball until the third or fourth inning, but as the game went on, he got more control of his breaking ball, his cutter. He started to have good location with his fastball. Location of his changeup was good.

“It was a feel-good for him when the ball comes out of his hands like that. His bullpen today showed he was behind the ball really good, so we went to No. 1 [fastball] to work our way through other pitches.’’

Everyone has a theory on what Matsuzaka needs to do.

For manager Terry Francona, it’s simple.

“The way he pounded the strike zone,’’ Francona said. “From the first pitch of the game, he threw all of his pitches for strikes. You tell everybody on the staff to throw strikes and good things will happen, and we were pleased with his outing.’’

Francona wasn’t sure the change of routine helped Matsuzaka this quickly, but he said, “Long-term, I think the change of routine will be beneficial. Today he was around the plate with everything, so you’re going to get swings on breaking pitches.’’

That was something Matsuzaka commented on as well. That’s what he thought the key was.

So why doesn’t he do it all the time?

“He’s got a repertoire of pitches,’’ Varitek said. “He had life on his fastball. When he has life, it makes his secondary pitches just that much better.’’

Matsuzaka retired nine of the first 10 batters he faced; only his former catcher, Victor Martinez, got a hit off him, singling to left on a 3-and-2 pitch. Matsuzaka put two runners on in the fourth, and Jacoby Ellsbury made a nice catch in deep center, outrunning a ball struck by Miguel Cabrera.

Matsuzaka also walked Martinez in that inning, but he got out of it and came back with a crisp 1-2-3 fifth.

“When he’s on, it’s crisp and clean and the game moves along,’’ said Varitek. “That was a good nugget to him today.’’

Yep, the game plan was to throw strikes and be aggressive. But isn’t that always the game plan? He’s capable of it. It’s in there. But do we dare think yesterday allows him to turn the corner?

The answer is obvious. No, we don’t.

He must prove to everyone he can.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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