The Red Sox's 'Empire' destroyer

The Red Sox's 'Empire' destroyer
By Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports
April 26, 2007

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
So, that round thing. Usually white, with some dirt rubbed on it. Called a baseball. On Friday night, at Yankee Stadium, Daisuke Matsuzaka is supposed to throw one, which should be quite a big deal. Though with all this talk about Curt Schilling's three-year-old bloody sock, who isn't looking more forward to Court TV's wall-to-wall coverage of the test to prove the red splotch is Schilling's DNA and not a brushstroke of Rave Red from Sherwin-Williams?

Take that, Larry Birkhead.

This makes twice now that Matsuzaka's starts against the New York Yankees, the team that the Boston Red Sox paid $103 million for him to vanquish, have played second fiddle. First Yankees rookie Chase Wright decided to tie a 43-year-old record and give up four consecutive home runs to the Red Sox, overshadowing Matsuzaka's pedestrian performance that nevertheless earned him a victory. And now, Baltimore Orioles announcer Gary Thorne claimed he was told by Red Sox catcher Doug Mirabelli that the blood on Schilling's sock in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series in 2004 wasn't really blood, prompting enough denials and clarifications to prove beyond a doubt that it's absolutely true.

And where does that leave Matsuzaka? Oh, yeah. Him. Sailing along, toting a rather unsightly 4.00 earned-run average into his fifth start. At times, his brilliance makes even the most well-cut diamond look dull. Yet the Yankees proved Matsuzaka's fallibility, and the Red Sox can only hope it's not the start of a trend that ends with another of their aces declaring the Yankees his daddy.

Because the Red Sox brought Matsuzaka in to beat New York. Do not believe otherwise. The international exposure is nice, the Japanese endorsements profitable, the victories against Toronto and Baltimore and Tampa Bay, the rest of their AL East rivals, all well and good.

Fact is, Matsuzaka is Luke Skywalker and the Yankees the (Evil) Empire. And against a lineup minus Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada, Matsuzaka yielded six earned runs in seven innings and blew the lead handed to him by the four home runs.

"When I get a chance to pitch again in New York," Matsuzaka said after Sunday's game, "that’s something that I will be conscious of and I will do my best not to repeat the problems that I had."

The problems can be multi-fold, said one scout who has seen two of Matsuzaka's starts. Particularly against Toronto and New York, Matsuzaka's command escaped him and turned an above-average fastball into a hittable one. Though Matsuzaka gets away with his slider high in the strike zone because of its movement, neither his fastball nor changeup have survived above the belt.

"He's leaving the changeup up too much," the scout said. "It's got great action. It's just hittable when it's in the zone, and it's there a lot."

The changeup – which is not a gyroball, despite the insistence of many an ignorant announcing crew – came with the billing of Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell as perhaps Matsuzaka's best of his eight offerings. It moves like a screwball because of the pronation of his wrist. When left up, it moves like a locomotive in the opposite direction, as it did when Derek Jeter sent one over the Green Monster.

Matsuzaka's other issues – his loss of fastball velocity out of the stretch and pitch inefficiency – should work themselves out as he adjusts to the game in the United States, the scout said. His array of pitches, the scout said, are just too good not to win.

Anyway, it's not just the types of pitches Matsuzaka throws as much as what he does with them. In his first at-bat against Alex Rodriguez, who could hit a home run with a broomstick these days, Matsuzaka planted a fastball in his left shoulder.

"Of course when you’re facing such a hot and talented batter, the thing you want to do as a pitcher is pitch inside to him," Matsuzaka said. "As I was watching the games the previous two nights, I didn't really think that we were pitching too hard inside to him. I was definitely very, very conscious of throwing inside to him, and of course hitting him on that pitch was purely an accident."

Matsuzaka did tip his cap, an apologetic gesture in Japan.

He also smirked.

"He said, 'I might do it,' " said Red Sox reliever Julian Tavarez, recalling a conversation a couple days earlier about pitching inside. "I said, 'Go ahead and do it.' I told him, 'Whatever it takes to win.' He laughed when he hit him. He didn't mean it. Alex knows that. He's one of the smartest guys in baseball. He's the best baseball player I've ever seen."

In his next at-bat, Rodriguez watched a backdoor cut fastball crawl back over the inside corner for strike three.

It was, more than any moment that night, what the Red Sox need Matsuzaka to be: not just an equalizer but a neutralizer.

"You have to make quality pitches constantly," Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said. "At times, he was really good. And at other times, they capitalized."

The Yankees couldn't exactly celebrate. After Mike Lowell's three-run home run gave Boston a 7-6 lead and victory, New York skulked back home victims of a sweep. Forget the six runs against Matsuzaka.

"That wasn't our goal," Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "to pick on a pitcher and say we're satisfied."

Matsuzaka's goal, on the other hand, is to pick on the Yankees and become an insoluble mystery. In the eyes of the Red Sox, they are still the underdogs and the fighters, even if they own the more recent championship and carry almost the same stratospheric payroll. Their inferiority complex is their strength.

With an early three-game lead in the division – and a 5½-game lead on the Yankees – the Red Sox need Matsuzaka to complement Beckett and Schilling, who have both been excellent. They need Matsuzaka to resemble the dominant, 10-strikeout pitcher he was in his debut. And against the Yankees, they need Matsuzaka to be only one thing.

Bloody good.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Friday, Apr 27, 2007 3:02 am, EDT

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