The Unexpectedly Relevant Daisuke Matsuzaka
|10.01.09 at 2:37 pm ET|
The Red Sox understood that Daisuke Matsuzaka might end up contributing nothing to their 2009 season.
The right-hander had reported to spring training from the World Baseball Classic in poor condition, and his performance on the mound showed it. The velocity and life on his pitches — a signature of his at-times unhittable first two seasons in the majors — was nowhere in evidence.
The Red Sox had already tried putting Daisuke Matsuzaka on the disabled list for five weeks, giving him five weeks to strengthen his shoulder and refuel his tank from mid-April until late-May after he threw just one inning and allowed five runs in his second start of the year. That didn’t work.
He had come back, and still his overall conditioning was getting in the way of sustainable success. He went 1-4 with a 7.22 ERA. With each outing, he was more vulnerable, and it became clear that he would be of little use to the Sox in his current state.
And so, the team banished the pitcher to Fort Myers to work on his conditioning, to build the foundation that he had failed to achieve during the offseason and while training for the World Baseball Classic. The priority was to make the two-time WBC MVP a better, stronger pitcher for the final three years of his contract. In 2009, the Sox realized, the pitcher might or might not be able to offer anything.
“When we sent him down to do that we thought, ‘Well, there’s a chance he can come back and help us in September, but there’s also significant consideration for next year and the future and this was the right thing to do to get back on track,’” said Epstein. “He was issued a unique challenge because he wasn’t where we needed him to be. It’s not usual for a pitcher, let alone one of his caliber, to have to go down to the spring training facility and do sprints at 6 o’clock in the morning and recondition himself and long toss with a bunch of 17-year-olds and get himself back in the position where he can be back with the major-league team.”
But Matsuzaka did just that, in not just adequate but instead impressive fashion. The pitcher, whose body fat percentage had shot up by a good seven percentage points when he showed up for spring training this year, made himself lean and strong. His shoulder gained tremendous strength (as evidenced by some epic long-toss sessions), something that became possible because of the overall foundation that he had built.
And so, the returns from three September starts have exceeded anything that the team could have reasonably expected. In his outings, he is 2-1 with a 1.96 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 18.1 innings. He is sustaining the velocity and life on his pitches over the course of his outings, and has positioned himself to contribute not just in the regular season but also, likely, the playoffs.
“It’s still early yet. He’s still got some games to pitch, but the early returns are good,” said Epstein. “The fact that he worked so hard and dedicated himself so fully to the endeavor put him in a position to actually impact the club this year and it turns out we really needed him so he deserves a lot of credit there.”
On Friday, Matsuzaka makes his final regular-season start against the Indians. At one point, the notion of a “final regular-season start” also seemed destined to represent the last time that Matsuzaka would pitch for the Sox in 2009. No longer. Improbably, Matsuzaka — a 33-game winner in his first two big-league seasons who seemed unlikely to win as many as three games in ’09 — represents a key member of the Sox’ October hopes.
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