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Daisuke Matsuzaka eyes a strong future, but isn’t contemplating free agency

08.27.12 at 9:24 pm ET

The truth be told, Daisuke Matsuzaka had doubts.

A committed effort to rehab following Tommy John surgery last June brought him back to a big league mound exactly 365 days from the time he went under the knife. But his results were, in his own eyes, disappointing. In five starts, he went 0-3 with a 6.65 ERA. He did not pitch more than six innings in any of those outings, and he admitted to wondering whether he could still summon the stuff to be an effective big league pitcher when he landed on the disabled list after a start on July 2 due to a strained trapezius muscle, the second time that the injury had crept up on him this year.

But after being sidelined for most of July, he started a rehab assignment in Triple-A Pawtucket at the end of the month. It took him some time, but in his most recent outing, he submitted a dominant effort against the Twins’ top minor league affiliate, throwing seven shutout innings and allowing just one hit while striking out seven last Tuesday. He was able to carry that form forward.

‘€œWhen I had to go back on the DL back in July, it was very discouraging, especially since I didn’€™t expect my body to respond in the way it did,” said Matsuzaka. “The encouraging part about that was it wasn’€™t my elbow; my elbow was feeling fine. Despite not being sure whether I’€™d be able to come back strong this season and pitch a game like I did today, I was able to work at it and the results eventually started to come. My body right now feels a lot better than it did before I had Tommy John and my body definitely feels better than it did back in June.”

On Monday, Matsuzaka was activated from the DL and submitted an outing unlike any other since his return from Tommy John surgery. He logged seven innings (for the first time since April 2011), earning his first victory since last May 8 with seven dominant innings against the Royals. He had a swing-and-miss fastball that he pumped into the strike zone at 92-94 mph, complemented by a cutter, slider and changeup that allowed him to hold the Royals to just one unearned run (the result of Matsuzaka walking the first batter of the game, committing a throwing error on a pickoff attempt and then allowing him to score on a sac fly) on five hits, striking out six and walking two.

The victory represented a considerable accomplishment for the pitcher.

‘€œWhen I returned back in June and I didn’€™t get the results I wanted to, I thought for a moment I wouldn’€™t be able to pitch a game like today again this season,” Matsuzaka said through interpreter Jeff Cutler. “I got back to my rehab, and my last two rehab starts in Pawtucket went really well and felt really good. I knew if I was able to pitch like that up here, the results will come.”

Manager Bobby Valentine said he was “very encouraged” by the outing, and that Matsuzaka would continue to start going forward.

“He might finish strong,” said Valentine. “Throwing like that he has a chance.”

And that, in turn, could portend well for Matsuzaka going forward. His 1-3 record and 5.10 ERA are hardly anything to write home about, but with free agency looming, he’s addressed one of the foremost issues that has dogged him in his tenure with the Red Sox. He’s thrown strikes and limited his walks, issuing a career-low 3.0 free passes per nine innings while punching out 7.8 batters per nine in his time in the majors this year. Those numbers align with his minor league rehab performances as well; he’s walked 2.9 and struck out 7.7 per nine innings in his various rehab stops.

And beyond those numbers, the action on his pitches appears to be better than it was in recent years. More to the point, the action on his pitches on Monday — when he elicited 10 swings and misses — is better than it was when he was activated from the DL in June.

“As he’€™s progressed along, I think his fastball has gotten a little better, maybe not velocity-wise but there’€™s a life to pitches that, when you’€™re back to full strength, there’€™s a finish and life to them that I think he’€™s gotten back. Evidence is the hitters when they swing at them,” said pitching coach Randy Niemann. “It’€™s not as easy to square the ball up, and so I’€™m seeing more and more of that with each outing. Every chance that he’€™s had to be out there for us, I’€™m seeing more of that.”

If he can have a few more outings like the one he submitted on Monday, Matsuzaka has a chance to secure another guaranteed big league contract for next season — undoubtedly, given his spotty health history and up-and-down track record of recent years, a deal of relatively short term and short dollars, but a guaranteed big league contract nonetheless. Those peripheral numbers suggest a potential buy-low option for big league teams for next year.

But Matsuzaka — while seemingly curious about free agency — suggested that his focus has not yet turned to next year. Instead, he is hopeful that he can help the 2012 Red Sox as his six-year, $52 million contract — signed to such immense fanfare in Dec. 2006 — winds down to its expiration.

‘€œI’ve actually never experienced going into free agency, even in Japan, so I don’€™t really know what to expect,” he said. “[But] I’€™m not really thinking about that at all. Right now I’€™m focused on the playoffs and figuring out how I can contribute to the team and get the team in position where we can be competitive.”

That isn’t necessarily a realistic goal, but continued improvement by the pitcher is. Monday represented a building block in that regard, and Matsuzaka anticipates that there is more ahead in that regard.

‘€œI expect to feel better a year from now, next season. But I’€™m not really sure how much better that’€™s going to be,” said Matsuzaka. “I definitely know it’€™s still going to be a while until I’€™m going to be at the point where I want to be or expect myself to be. It’€™s also very encouraging to watch [Junichi] Tazawa, watch his struggles last season and see him come back this year and pitch really well. It’€™s very encouraging.”

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