ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – He gets in these situations because his head's an 11 on the Mohs scale. He gets out of them for the same reason. Daisuke Matsuzaka's weakness is his strength, and harnessing it is the difference between misery and the elation that followed Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
The ability to teeter on the precipice of a disaster without falling is an acquired skill indeed, one to which Matsuzaka has soldered his results, and he came through again unscathed Friday night in the Boston Red Sox's 2-0 series-opening victory against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Matsuzaka pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning, took a no-hitter through the sixth, escaped another quandary in the seventh and walked off the mound looking much more the $103 million pitcher the Red Sox anticipated last year than the one whose 2007 postseason winnowed into oblivion.
"You think backward with him," teammate Sean Casey said. "He gets guys on, and it's like, 'OK, we're going to get out of this inning.' All year long. If the guys get something going, boom, it just dies. They die on base."
Tampa Bay's graveyard was mighty full. Matsuzaka muffled the sellout crowd at Tropicana Field witnessing its first ALCS game, neutered the momentum from the regular season, halted any notion that the path to the World Series doesn't still run through Boston. He struck out nine around four walks and four hits surrendered in his final inning-plus. He attacked hitters with men on base the same way he did those leading off an inning, abandoning any pretense of passivity.
Nibble. Nibble. Nibble. Bite.
"It's his unwillingness to ever give in to a hitter," Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said. "It's not only his ability to compete, but to control his emotions in those situations."
How Matsuzaka evolved from a pitcher last year so overwhelmed – with the different ball and game and strategy and hitters and strike zone – to one who traipsed out in the most important game of the season and spun a gem speaks to the Red Sox's deft handling of him.
The social adjustment was over. Matsuzaka fathomed the pressure that accompanied his team and contract. This year meant more dialogue between him, Farrell and manager Terry Francona about the freedom to pitch the way Matsuzaka's accustomed – with long at-bats and higher pitch counts and the sort of slop that contributes to, say, 29-minute first innings.
Certainly Tampa Bay starter James Shields did his part, though most of the blame for the sitcom-length inning goes to Matsuzaka. Twenty-five pitches, three walks and the Rays had nothing to show for it.
In other words, the Daisuke Special.
With the bases loaded this season, hitters are 0 for 15 against Matsuzaka. And with runners on base, they hit .164, more than 60 points less than with none on. And he fares better after he starts a batter off with a ball (.178) than with a strike (.199).
All of it reveals the Tao of Daisuke: Baserunners are but a mere obstacle.
"At one point, you run out of patience," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said. "But then, you be like, 'OK, they hit .164 off him with runners on base.' I don't know how he do it, but he do it."
No one, in fact, can pinpoint exactly how Matsuzaka extracts himself from such situations. His fastball command was shaky Friday, so he stuck with two-seamers that ran inside on right-handed hitters and cutters that bore in on lefties. He'd throw in sliders, changeups and the rest of a very stocked kitchen sink, and the Rays went home wondering how home-field advantage had so quickly wriggled its way to Boston.
"He's just one of those guys with 12 different pitches," Boston outfielder Jason Bay said. "You never know which way the ball is going. It's not a very comfortable at-bat."
Bay wasn't the only one to intimate Tampa Bay's discomfort. Ortiz wondered whether the Rays bowed at all under the postseason pressure, saying he saw looks in their faces that confirmed their worry. It was standard Ortiz gamesmanship, something just to tweak the losers, but it contrasted well with Matsuzaka's countenance.
He stood tall on the mound, gave off the air of a pitcher who felt emboldened by an 18-3 regular season with a 2.90 ERA. In the second half last year, Matsuzaka wore down, fatigued by a regular season 18 games longer than Japan's. Even now, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon admitted, "I'm tired. Everybody else in this clubhouse is tired. But when my name gets called or anyone else's name gets called, that's way in the back of your mind."
The Red Sox did call Matsuzaka, and with Josh Beckett and Jon Lester in Games 2 and 3, they've got a chance to make short work of what looked to be a long series. To see Matsuzaka give up back-to-back hits in the seventh inning and strand Carl Crawford on third base by inducing a popup, getting a strikeout and forcing a groundout hammered home the point that, yes, Matsuzaka may be intractable and frustrating, but none of that matters when he gives you seven shutout innings on the road in the biggest game of the season.
After Game 3 of the ALCS last season, one in which Matsuzaka couldn't even make it out of the fifth inning without passing the 100-pitch threshold, he spent more than 50 minutes staring into the abyss of his locker. Inside was emptiness, which provided enough solace for the moment.
Early Saturday, at 12:53 a.m. ET, Matsuzaka emerged from the shower and returned to his locker. He sat there for less than five seconds, stood up, turned around, smiled and strode away, a new year and a new result for the same stubborn pitcher everyone with the Red Sox has learned to love.
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