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Red Sox Minor League Roundup: Daisuke Matsuzaka and the truth about Tommy John surgery

05.08.12 at 12:00 pm ET
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The reality is that Tommy John surgery, more often than not, does not feature a straight line rehab process.

Rich Hill represented the exception, experiencing no setbacks in the roughly 11 months since his surgery to the point where he’s already asserted himself as an important contributor in the Red Sox‘ major league bullpen. But the path back is typically different — and more deliberate — particularly for starting pitchers.

And so, it should not come as a complete surprise that Daisuke Matsuzaka has not yet looked like a dominant pitcher in his rehab appearances. There have been interesting signs, such as the fact that he touched as high as 94 mph while pitching in extended spring training, and the fact that he punched out seven in a Double-A rehab start a little more than a week ago. But he remains a work in progress, and not a finished product.

On Monday in Pawtucket, he offered a reminder of that fact. He tossed 4 2/3 shutout innings, but it took the right-hander 87 pitches to get to that stage of the game. he was unable to finish the fifth inning, something that represented a bit of a disappointment.

“I had about four walks and a lot of two-ball, three-ball counts which knocked up my pitch count,” Matsuzaka told reporters (via a translator) in Pawtucket. “I really wanted to throw at least five innings, but it didn’t happen, so I’m not really happy about that.”

While Matsuzaka reported no problems in the neck issue that delayed his latest outing by a few days, he acknowledged that his rebuilt elbow varies on a day-to-day basis. That being the case, he did not exude certainty about whether he might be ready to return to the majors with another couple of starts.

“Overall, my body feels good, so that’s fine, but my elbow, depending on the day — some days it feels better than others. Right now, I’m hoping when I start, it hits the day I’m feeling good,” he told reporters. “Regarding being ready in two more games, it’s hard to say because it’s a step-by-step process, a game-by-game process. I’ll just go see how I pitch my next outing and see how that goes and see where I stand then.”

In many respects, in examining the histories of other Red Sox pitchers who underwent Tommy John, it is remarkable that Matsuzaka — less than a year removed from the repair of his ulnar collateral ligament last June — is in Triple-A. Junichi Tazawa had the procedure performed in April 2010 and did not start a rehab assignment for 13 months. Former Sox pitcher Nick Hagadone (who recorded his first career big league save on Monday) went under the knife in May 2008 and didn’t start pitching in minor league games until June 2009.

Matsuzaka remains way ahead of schedule, but the process of rebuilding a starter’s arm strength takes time, and it’s typically subject to more peaks and valleys (given the need to work up to 100 or more pitches in an outing) than is a reliever’s recovery.

Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal noted that Matsuzaka’s velocity was pedestrian — as high as 91 mph, but mostly 89-90 mph in the early innings, and more like 86-88 mph in the middle innings. His command, too, was imprecise, as evidenced by the fact that he threw just 56 percent of his pitches for strikes.

The outing was the third of Matsuzaka’s rehab assignment. He previously appeared in High-A Salem (4 innings, 3 runs, 3 strikeouts, no walks) and Double-A Portland (4 2/3 innings, 1 run, 7 strikeouts, 2 walks). The right-hander had been slated for a rehab appearance on Friday, but that was pushed back by three days due to an issue on the left side of his neck.

Overall, in his three starts, Matsuzaka has a 2.84 ERA, 14 strikeouts and five walks in 12 2/3 innings. He has yet to pitch five complete innings, though he did reach a rehab-high in his pitch count on Monday. Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine had said that Matsuzaka was likely to need at least one additional rehab start beyond Monday night’s. Conceivably, he could make as many as three additional starts within the 30-day window of his rehab clock.

Even with his so-so outing (good results, not-so-good stuff) on Monday, he 31-year-old remains ahead of schedule in his rehab. But for now, he does not yet appear to be knocking down the door to return to the Red Sox rotation. For the Red Sox and the right-hander, even at a time when Clay Buchholz is amidst one of the worst struggles of his career and when the team is in the middle of a stretch of games on 20 straight days, Matsuzaka’s value is not simply in being moved up to the majors to be a warm body in a struggling rotation. His rehab — rather than big league need — must dictate when he returns to the majors.

“If I could contribute to the team now, of course I would like to be up there,” Matsuzaka said. “The best way for me to contribute to the team is to get as close to 100 percent as I can. I just need to get myself to that point in order for me to contribute the most to the team.”

TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET: 4-0 WIN VS. ROCHESTER (TWINS)

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Ryan Lavarnway matched a season high with three hits and reached base for a season-high four times, going 3-for-3 (all singles) with a walk. After a 1-for-17 slump, he’s now 5-for-8 in his last two games. For the season, while his power has been down (.375 slugging), Lavarnway has a .273 average, .371 OBP, .375 slugging percentage and .746 OPS.

Alex Wilson had his best relief outing to date. In his first situation with inherited runners to date (he came into the game in relief of Matsuzaka, who left behind a first-and-second, two-out situation), Wilson elicited an inning-ending groundout and then pitched two more shutout innings on top of that, allowing two hits (both singles), striking out three and walking none. In five relief appearances spanning seven innings, Wilson has now allowed three runs (3.86 ERA), struck out eight and walked three. It is worth noting that he has yet to make a relief appearance on fewer than two days of rest.

Mark Melancon turned in another scoreless inning, allowing a single while recording all three outs via strikeout. His 0.00 ERA remains intact, and he’s struck out 15 in his 8 2/3 innings while walking none and getting all his other outs via groundball.

— The hottest hitters on the PawSox? Pedro Ciriaco and Daniel Nava can both make compelling cases.

In 14 games since April 21, Nava is hitting .400 with a .456 OBP, .680 slugging mark, 1.136 OPS, two homers, nine extra-base hits and 11 RBI. Nava went 2-for-4 with a homer on Monday. While the switch-hitter was used primarily against lefties while in the majors in 2010, he has been hitting righties well in the minors, forging a .306 average, .397 OBP, .532 slugging mark and .930 OPS against them this year.

Ciriaco, meanwhile, is amidst a seven-game hitting streak in which he’s hitting .500 (14-for-28) with two doubles, a triple, a walk and a steal. While he played a bit of outfield in spring training in an effort to become more versatile, Ciriaco has solely played infield in Pawtucket, with most of his time coming at second base, a few games at short and one at third.

Jose Iglesias went 0-for-4, as his career-best streak of five straight multi-hit games came to an end.

DOUBLE-A PORTLAND: 8-1 WIN VS. NEW HAMPSHIRE (BLUE JAYS)

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Chris Balcom-Miller employed his power sinker to turn in seven innings (tied for his longest outing in Double-A) in which he allowed just three hits (all singles) and a run while walking two and striking out three. He elicited 13 outs on the ground. Balcom-Miller’s rate of 3.71 groundouts per flyball out ranks first in the Eastern League, second in all of Double-A and seventh in the minors. The 23-year-old is 2-2 with a 5.12 ERA.

Bryce Brentz slugged his first homer in 18 games, ending a stretch of 67 at-bats in which he hadn’t cleared the fences. The 23-year-old’s power is seemingly starting to play in Double-A, as Brentz — who hit 30 homers last year between Single-A Greenville and High-A Salem — now has five extra-base hits in his last seven games after just three in his first 20.

Reynaldo Rodriguez, a 26-year-old whom the Sox acquired from Indy League ball a few years ago, hit two homers, and now has gone deep four times in the last five games. He is hitting .275/.342/.529/.872 with five homers on the year.

HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: DAY OFF

— Though Salem had the day off, it’s worth taking stock of this: Salem pitching coach Kevin Walker told play-by-play man Evan Lepler that, in his 12-strikeout debut on Saturday, Matt Barnes‘ fastball was mostly around 95 mph and touched 98 mph.

GREENVILLE DRIVE: 11-6 WIN VS. ROME (BRAVES)

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Keury De La Cruz continues to pile up impressive offensive numbers. The 20-year-old had the first four-hit game of his pro career, going 4-for-5 (all singles) to improve to .346 with a .397 OBP, .561 slugging mark and .958 OPS. In 116 plate appearances this season, he has matched his homer total of a year ago (4), he’s closing on his RBI total (24 last year, 17 this year) and he has seven walks, as compared to 10 a year ago in 312 plate appearances in Lowell. For more on the improvements that De La Cruz has shown in his approach this year, click here.

Garin Cecchini matched a season-high with three hits and set a career high with three extra-base hits. The 21-year-old was 3-for-5 with two doubles and a triple, and now has seven extra-base hits in his last eight games. Though he has yet to go deep this year, he has solid across-the-board numbers thus far this year (.290/.350/.402/.752, 11 steals in 27 games).

— Center fielder Cody Koback is amidst a seven-game hitting streak that includes multi-hit games in each of his last three contests, including a 2-for-4 game with a homer on Monday. The Sox were pleased to be able to draft a player with Koback’s upside and across the board tools as late as the 10th round of the 2011 draft. Though a college (Wisconsin Stevens-Point) product, Koback remains somewhat raw as a result of having played against less advanced (Division III) competition. He started out slowly (2-for-16) but has since found his footing, hitting .291/.357/.421/.778 in his last 19 games, and he has the speed and athleticism to be developed as a middle-of-the-field defender.

Read More: alex wilson, bryce brentz, chris balcom-miller, cody koback
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