With Boston starters coming into action Wednesday night with a combined 5.47 ERA, getting a healthy Daisuke Matsuzaka back into the rotation would be a huge boost for the Red Sox. Members of Sox Nation who might have seen Matsuzaka's start against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs likely came away with mixed emotions.
Matsuzaka's line - 5 2/3 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 8 K - was good enough, but it could have turned out badly had Lehigh Valley hitters taken advantage of some pitches up in the zone. Matsuzaka was leaving his change-up high in the zone, but IronPigs hitters were turning those high pitches into innocent fly balls. Velocity-wise though, the change-up was keeping hitters off stride thanks to a difference of about ten miles per hour between his change and his fastball. As Matsuzaka settled in, his fastball jumped from the mid-to-high 80s in the first inning to the low-90s by late in the second inning. In the fourth, Matsuzaka looked especially strong and threw a number of fastballs in the low-90s, mixing them with breaking pitches and striking out the side in order.
"Over the first three innings, they were getting hits here and there," said Matsuzaka through an interpreter. "When I went back out there for the fourth, the heart of the order was coming up, so I just wanted to do my best to not let those guys get on base."
Ironically, it looked like Matsuzaka was locked in after striking out five hitters from the third through fifth innings, when he threw a 3-1 fastball to Dane Sardinha in the bottom of the fifth, and Sardinha quickly deposited the pitch into the bullpens in left field. Sardinha's home run broke Dice-K's streak of 15 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run. An inning later, Matsuzaka convinced manager Torey Lovullo to let him face another hitter, even though his pitch count was at 93; it turned out to be a mistake when Matsuzaka gave up a two-run single to DeWayne Wise, who was the last batter that Matsuzaka faced.
As Matsuzaka's pitch count was climbing, he started to rely more and more on off-speed pitches, but he was still able to put a little heat on his pitches and struck out former major leaguers John Mayberry Jr. and Cody Ransom on inside fastballs that touched 90 miles per hour. Throughout his start, Matsuzaka had command of all of his pitches and threw 66 of his 99 total pitches for strikes.
Followers of Matsuzaka have noted that he appears to be working quicker than in the past and is much more relaxed on the mound than he's been in the past and the 29 year old right-hander acknowledged that fact following Wednesday night's game. "I'm always trying to give our hitters the chance to get out there and hit as quickly as possible so they can get into their rhythm," said Dice-K. "I will say that I think I pitched today with a little too much lightness in my step."
One very encouraging note for Matsuzaka in his rehab starts has been his control. In 16 2/3 innings, Matsuzaka walked just one hitter and notched 13 strikeouts. Throughout his major league career, Matsuzaka has averaged just over four walks per nine innings with 8 1/2 strikeouts per nine.
Even with the struggles of the Boston starters, Matsuzaka hasn't received any news of when he might be brought back to Boston. He insists that he's completely healthy and declared himself ready to pitch in the majors after his last rehab start and reiterated that after his appearance against Lehigh Valley. "Just because the team [Boston] is struggling, doesn't make that feeling any stronger," answered Matsuzaka. "I always want to be able to contribute and I'm ready to contribute."
With his success on this current rehab assignment, Matsuzaka is confident he can help the Red Sox through their current struggles, but has the most confidence in the fact that he's healthy. "The only thing that I can be completely satisfied with is the fact that I'm healthy." replied Matsuzaka.