Have times changed for Daisuke Matsuzaka?

Mike Fine

Times have changed in the year since Daisuke Matsuzaka sat disconsolately at his locker, staring, speaking to nobody for about an hour after his Game 3 ALCS loss at Cleveland last year.

Matsuzaka lasted only 4 2/3 innings, giving up six hits and four runs. The problem was, it was his second straight 4 2/3-innings loss, and he wasn’t a happy Japanese camper.

During his rookie season, Matsuzaka was plagued by bouts of wildness, including an inability to seal the deal, instead nibbling at the corners in an attempt to keep the ball on the black. Yet, he still managed to win 15 games and earned himself a championship ring.

So, when you stop and think about it, have times really changed?

They have in the respect that the second-year right-hander finished with an outstanding 18-3 regular-season record, but just like last year, he also struggled in the ALDS, giving up eight hits and three runs in Game 2 against the Angels.

The Sox won when J.D. Drew hit a two-run home run in the ninth inning. In Game 2 of the 2007 ALDS against the Angels, he went 4 2/3, giving up seven hits and three runs. The Sox won that game when Manny Ramirez stroked a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth.

There does seem to be a difference this season. There’s the record, for one thing, and perhaps some new confidence.

“Getting that first-pitch strike puts you at a big advantage for that at-bat,” he said. “But I wouldn't say that being able to get that first-pitch strike boosts my confidence in any way. And on the other hand, just because I couldn't get the first pitch strike, it doesn't cause any anxiety on my part.”

Despite his tremendous record, Matsuzaka remains something of an enigma, a pitcher whose 94 walks this season led the American League, yet a pitcher who went 9-0, 2.37 in 13 road starts, with some confounding stuff.

“We’re going to have to wait him out and see how he’s throwing,” Tampa Bay rookie Evan Longoria said on the eve of the ’08 ALCS. “It’s a little bit different when you’re playing in a playoff game. Walks are so important, and if he’s going to come out and do what he normally does, he usually walks a ton of guys and throws a lot of pitches early. If we can get him on the ropes early, we’ve really got to take advantage of that.”

That’s the crux of the problem for Sox manager Terry Francona. The 18-3 Matsuzaka record would suggest that he’s No. 1 starter material, but Josh Beckett’s career 7-2, 2.03 playoff record would suggest that he’s a No. 1. And off what Jon Lester did late in the season in the ALDS, where he didn’t allow the Angels an earned run (one unearned), it should be him.

It just so happened that the rotation worked out best with Matsuzaka leading off tonight in Game 1 of the ALCS against a team that has given the Sox fits this season, especially in the Tropicana Dome, where the Sox could win only once in nine tries.

On the other hand, Matsuzaka held up his road record proudly in St. Pete, where he pitched twice during the regular season. The first time he threw, July 2, he left with a 4-1 lead, having given up only two hits in a run (in five innings) before the pen allowed six runs in the seventh.

On Sept. 16, a week after giving up eight hits and three runs (in five innings) to the Rays in Boston, Matsuzaka faced the Rays again in St. Pete, giving up only three hits and one run in—you guessed it—five innings. The 13-5 win was the only one of the season for the Sox in Florida.

So for all the problems Matsuzaka has had with pitch counts, he’s 1-0, 4.15 in his last four starts against the Rays, 1-0, 1.80 at the Trop. He has more starts, eight (2-3, 3.75), against Tampa Bay than any other team.

“I've faced this team many times, but it's hard to refer back to last year because I've also changed as a pitcher,” Matsuzaka said. “A lot of the same players are still in the lineup, so I have a good idea of what good spots to pitch to and what pitches are effective, so I just hope that I can execute those pitches.”

Easier said than done, of course.

The Patriot Ledger