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For Daisuke Matsuzaka, it’s a start: ‘Nervous’ outing offers a ‘usable’ foundation

06.09.12 at 8:30 pm ET

A couple hours before Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s first major league start in 385 days, his manager, Bobby Valentine, offered a refrain that has been familiar for much of the right-hander’s six-year tenure with the Red Sox.

“I have no idea what to expect,” Valentine said.

How could he? Matsuzaka was coming back from Tommy John surgery, the last time Valentine had seen him pitch in game circumstances from the field level was in Japan back in 2006 and even at his healthiest, Matsuzaka had been a study in unpredictability as a big leaguer. Even Matsuzaka acknowledged that the circumstances surrounding the start were unusual, given how emotional he became at the idea of a return to a big league mound for the first time in more than 13 months.

“That’s the most nervous I’ve been before a start. When I was first told by Bobby that I was starting today’s game, every time I would think about the game, I’d become a little nervous. The preparation aspect, too, I felt nervous warming up, especially in the bullpen,” said Matsuzaka. “There were a lot of emotions going through my this week. A lot of memories today, especially from the fans and stadium itself that I’ve had over the last five years. That really made me appreciate even more all the support I’ve had throughout my rehab process. I’m really grateful and want to express my gratitude towards everyone that has supported me along the way.”

Given the uncertainty surrounding what Matsuzaka might do on the day of his first appearance, it seems fair to suggest that the pitcher exceeded any expectations with his stuff, if not his actual line. Though he allowed four runs on five hits in five innings, he elicited several swings and misses, mixing his fastball (typically 91-93 mph) with an impressive slider and changeup, as well as a cutter to allow him to get on hitters’ hands, and he was on the attack against an aggressive Nationals lineup.

The result was eight strikeouts (more than Matsuzaka had in all but one of his seven starts in 2011) with just one walk. The outing marked the eighth time in Matsuzaka’s major league career that he had as many as eight strikeouts while walking one or fewer batters.

He was relatively efficient, requiring 80 pitches (50 strikes) to navigate his five innings — an impressively low number given the number of strikeouts that he had. The quality and sequencing of his pitches unbalanced the Nationals for much of the afternoon, as he elicited nine swings and misses (three each of fastballs and sliders, two on changeups, one on a cutter) and at times had the Nats guessing wrong, as when he punched out Bryce Harper looking at a fastball to end his fifth and final inning. He also featured good power on that pitch, working at 90-93 mph during the outing.

The performance was not without its hiccups. Matsuzaka left a first pitch fastball over the plate to Adam LaRoche to start the second inning, and the former Red Sox (he spent nine days in Boston between two trades in 2009) crushed it into the bullpen. And then, he struggled en route to a three-run yield in the fourth, when a leadoff walk to Harper forced him to work out of the stretch for the first time of the day. After Harper’s walk, a single (on which Harper was taking off with the pitch, thus leaving Mike Aviles frozen when a potential double-play grounder went just to the right of him) put runners on the corners with no outs.

Matsuzaka came back to strike out LaRoche, but Mike Morse lined a ground-rule, RBI double to deep right, and Ian Desmond followed with a two-run single. At that point, Matsuzaka was on the ropes, but Adrian Gonzalez bailed him out with an excellent sliding catch in right to start a 9-4-3 double play, with the relay catching Desmond off first. The right-hander then returned to the mound for a solid fifth that ended with his punchout of Harper.

Matsuzaka was pleased with the consistency of both his velocity and command. By and large, so was his manager.

“I didn’€™t like the four runs, I didn’€™t like the four balls to Harper in the one at-bat. Other than that, I liked what I saw. I thought he threw a lot of strikes with all of his pitches, had good offspeed stuff, had pretty good command of his fastball except for that one at-bat. Had it moving both ways,” said Valentine. “[Catcher] Kelly Shoppach thought it was OK. From the side, I thought it looked OK. I didn’t get to see it other than from the side, but it looked useable. If we can build on that — eight strikeouts in five innings — it’s pretty good.”

Though Matsuzaka’s big league return concluded with a loss — and prevented the right-hander, who owns a career 49-31 record with the Sox, from becoming the third Japanese pitcher ever to reach 50 wins in his career — the 31-year-old is hopeful that it represented a foundation for future success.

“Every time I pitch, I want to give the team a chance to win,” said Matsuzaka. “Losing today is very disappointing, but I think I did leave some positives for my next start.”

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