Matsuzaka Rises to the Challenge in Defeat
|09.26.09 at 9:10 pm ET|
NEW YORK – Moral victories are rarely as satisfying as actual ones. Nonetheless, on a day when Yankees ace CC Sabathia proved nearly unhittable in a 3-0 victory, the Red Sox found themselves taking significant satisfaction in the performance that took place opposite New York’s skyscraping southpaw.
Just as was the case when Clay Buchholz pitched extremely well in defeat when Sabathia had no-hit stuff in early August, the Sox were once again left to marvel at a starter who proved something by going toe-to-toe with the 19-game winner. Daisuke Matsuzaka, in his third start back from the disabled list, was nearly Sabathia’s equal in seven innings.
Matsuzaka gave up six hits, though two were of the infield variety, and two more were on catchable pop-ups that the Sox failed to corral. He allowed just one run, a solo homer to Robinson Cano in the top of the sixth, that proved the difference in the game. Against the caliber of pitcher that he will have to face in October as a member of a postseason rotation, Matsuzaka proved once again that he can give his team a chance to win against anybody.
Even Matsuzaka, typically a perfectionist, took some satisfaction in a game when he suffered his first loss since coming off the D.L.
“I know that [Sabathia] has been hot late in the season, so we had our work cut out for us today,” said Matsuzaka. “I really wanted to do what I could to hold their hitters. I think they pushed really hard, and I held on as best as I could. Overall, I think it went okay. I wanted to keep that shutout going as long as I could. I felt confident pitching out there today.”
Matsuzaka showed a powerful arsenal that he sustained over the course of his seven innings and 115 pitches. He sustained a low-90s fastball, tailing changeup, darting slider and a solid curveball throughout his start, and proved willing to throw any pitch at any time.
In a significant sign of faith in the pitcher’s strength, the Sox allowed him to return to the mound for the seventh inning even though Matsuzaka had already cleared 100 pitches. The right-hander responded by mowing through his most efficient inning of the day, a 1-2-3 frame that required just 11 pitches.
“I wasn’t too aware of pitch count going back out there. I was able to go over 100 pitches last time,” Matsuzaka said, referencing his 110-pitch effort against the Orioles. “I think the coaches could see that I still had good life on my pitches late in the game.”
There was another moment that underscored to the Sox that the pitcher who won 33 games for them in 2007-08 has rounded back into familiar form. In the bottom of the fifth inning, the 29-year-old loaded the bases with no outs by allowing Derek Jeter’s swinging bunt single and walking Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira.
That, of course, put Matsuzaka in the familiar position of damage control with the bases juiced. A year ago, Matsuzaka held batters to an astounding 0-for-14 mark with the bases loaded, walking one, hitting one, and allowing a pair of sac flies.
This year, opponents were 0-for-3 with a run-scoring walk in four bases-loaded plate appearances. That mark is now 0-for-6, as Matsuzaka again performed his familiar bases-loaded magic.
The pitcher got Alex Rodriguez to dribble a first-pitch changeup just in front of the plate. Catcher Victor Martinez – who appeared to work brilliantly in his first pairing with Matsuzaka – pounced on the ball, reversed directions and dove to slap a tag on home plate and narrowly force Jeter. Hideki Matsui then likewise reached for a first-pitch changeup, fouling it a few feet behind home plate for the second out.
Finally, Nick Swisher lofted a down-and-away fastball foul down the third-base line. Mike Lowell chased it down in foul territory with a fine over-the-shoulder basket catch on the run, resulting in the third out.
“I think the answer that he’s back is that he got the bases loaded and got right out of it,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “There seems to be a comfort level there.”
Matsuzaka proved capable of bearing down whenever the Yankees mounted a threat. New York’s lineup went 0-for-11 against him with runners in scoring position.
The sixth inning was the one that featured Matsuzaka’s lone mistake of the day, the fastball that was intended to be inside and was instead middle-away. Cano extended his arms and lined it just over the left-field fence for the only run of the afternoon. That was it: one mistake, one solo homer, one defeat. Even so, the final line of seven innings, six hits, one run, five walks, three strikeouts and a hit batter.
From his vantage point, Martinez was extremely impressed by his first exposure to Matsuzaka from behind the plate.
“He won’t give up on any hitter. He’s got pretty good confidence in all his pitches,” said Martinez. “He did a great job. He gave us a pretty good chance to win the ballgame. That’s what it’s all about. He went out there and gave us a pretty strong seven innings. What else can you ask from a starter?”
Indeed, that rhetorical question came with a sense of reassurance. In just three starts, members of the Sox who spent months curious to know what Matsuzaka might be able to offer following his months-long banishment to Fort Myers now have gained confidence in their teammate.
A season that once appeared to be lost is now showing signs of contributions that are just beginning. Matsuzaka has quickly cemented his standing as a strong fourth starter for the Sox in the playoffs, something that allowed his team to gain plenty of encouragement even in defeat on Saturday.
“He’s been outstanding, especially going into the last week and the postseason,” said Lowell. “He’s using all his pitches and he’s throwing strikes. I think the fact he went seven innings, that’s a really good sign for us…He’s a guy we know we can count on.”
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