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Matsuzaka's surprising return to form

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BOSTON – Afterward, Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) wore an enormous silver watch on his left wrist, a dazzling piece of bling that looked straight out of the David Ortiz(notes) collection. So big it looked like it could have measured time not in hours and minutes, but in the weeks and months that Matsuzaka had been absent from the Red Sox.

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Daisuke Matsuzaka tossed six shutout innings in his return to the Red Sox after three months on the DL.
( Michael Dwyer/AP Photo)

With only days left in what for him has been a lost season, Matsuzaka knew what was at stake Tuesday night, when he triumphantly returned with six scoreless innings in a 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels.

"On the road back I've been a burden on my teammates more than anything and I feel that I owe them,'' Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "There's not much time left in the season, but in the limited time, the limited opportunity I do have, I want to show my appreciation to my teammates and the fans by contributing as much as I can.''

When Matsuzaka walked Chone Figgins(notes), the first batter of the game, there was a sense that perhaps little had changed, even though the pitcher on the mound appeared to be 15 to 20 pounds lighter than he'd been when placed on the disabled list June 20. But Figgins didn't advance beyond first, the Angels would not have a hit until Kendry Morales'(notes) leadoff single in the fifth, and there would be only two more walks, including the one to Morales that opened the seventh and prompted Boston manager Terry Francona to go to his bullpen.

There was little trickery involved for Matsuzaka, who came billed as a Japanese magician with at least six pitches when he first arrived in Boston before the 2007 season. He relied primarily on his fastball and cutter, and was at his best when the Angels had two on and one out in the fifth, striking out Jeff Mathis(notes) and Figgins to strand runners on second and third.

The drastic measures taken by the Red Sox, stung by the disruptive effect the World Baseball Classic had on both Matsuzaka's shoulder and overall conditioning, appear at first blush to have paid off. Matsuzaka, made to essentially repeat spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., gave every indication he will factor into Boston's postseason pitching plans.

"I've never had to take time in the middle of a season to try to get myself back, to try to build up strength,'' Matsuzaka said. "Even though I got a win, when I was doing my training, I was not sure I would ever come back, even though I tried to believe I would come back.

"I think the pitcher you saw today was completely different from the pitcher you saw at the beginning of the season. … I've never struggled as much as I have this year, so in that sense, [Tuesday night's win] was a little special, but I'll probably forget about it.''

Clearly, the experience has been humbling for Matsuzaka, a two-time MVP in the WBC, the first Japanese pitcher to start and win a World Series game, and an 18-game winner last season. But if the Red Sox salvage operation is successful, the best guess is that he could start a potential Game 4 for the Red Sox in Fenway Park in a first-round matchup with the Angels, which took on an air of inevitability when the Texas Rangers lost again to Oakland to drop 5½ games behind the Red Sox with 19 left.

Matsuzaka's next start is tentatively scheduled for Sunday in Baltimore. If he continues to progress, he figures to have the edge over the hobbled Tim Wakefield(notes) for the fourth spot in the postseason rotation.

"I thought he was terrific,'' Francona said. "He stayed in his delivery the entire night.

"He went down to Florida, we thought there were some things that needed to be taken care of. He came back in very good shape. His shoulder was stronger. Long-term, obviously, this was very important, but in the short term, it was a shot in the arm, too.''

HITTING THE CORNERS

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Tommy Hanson(notes).
(Getty Images)

Brave beginnings: How does Braves rookie Tommy Hanson compare to the illustrious arms that preceded him in Atlanta's rich pitching history? Well, Greg Maddux(notes) was 6-14 with a 5.61 ERA as a rookie (with the Cubs), John Smoltz(notes) was 2-7 with a 5.48 ERA, Tom Glavine(notes) was 7-17 with a 4.56 ERA, and Steve Avery was 3-11 with a 5.64 ERA.

After beating the New York Mets 6-0 Tuesday night, Hanson is 10-3 in 18 starts, and has thrust himself into serious consideration for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. His 10 wins have drawn him even with Phillies lefty J.A. Happ(notes) and Cubs surprise Randy Wells(notes) for most wins by an NL rookie. He gave up six runs in his big league debut, but allowed three or more earned runs just four more times in his next 17 starts. He held the Astros scoreless over eight innings in his last start before facing the Mets, then tacked on another seven zeroes on just three hits Tuesday night.

His earned run average dropped to 2.65, lower than that of Happ or Wells.

"It just makes it that much more humbling a little bit, growing up with those guys, now wearing the same uniform,'' Hanson said of any comparisons to Maddux, et al.

But did he emulate anyone?

"Never,'' he said. "I never tried to act like a certain player, be like a certain player. I've always done my own thing. My whole thing growing up was just going out there and having fun.''

Foot off the pedal: Bob Gibson posed the proposition himself in his running conversation with Reggie Jackson that comprises the book "Sixty Feet, Six Inches," a lively and enlightening look at the game by a Hall of Fame pitcher and hitter, written with Lonnie Wheeler.

"You have your choice tonight: Give up five miles an hour of velocity or three inches of control, I think I'd hold onto my speed,'' Gibson says. "Don't get me wrong: I believe in spotting the ball, but throwing 95 [mph] is a gift. You can't teach somebody to do that, and there's no substitute for it. I'll take my chances at 95, if I miss my location. That doesn't mean you can miss your spots all night long, but it means you might get away with it, if you don't push your luck.''

Red Sox ace Josh Beckett(notes), like Gibson, a hard thrower, was offered the same proposition, and took the opposite tack.

"I'd give up the five miles of velocity,'' Beckett said. "I think spotting the ball is also a gift, and so important, especially nowadays. Hitters may have been a little different then. Velocity is huge, but there isn't anybody in the big leagues who has been here two months who can't hit a 95 mph fastball.''

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Ichiro Suzuki(notes).
(Getty Images)

Short and sweet: In breaking the record for consecutive 200-hit seasons held by Wee Willie Keeler, set in the twilight of the 19th century, Ichiro Suzuki, very much a 21st-century creation, demonstrated a mastery of an art that worked for the wee one then and the slender Japanese star today. Suzuki is far and away the major league leader this season in infield hits, according to a study by Ari Kaplan, the Cal Tech-trained statistical analyst and webmaster of ariball.com.

Utilizing spray charts he keeps on every hitter, Kaplan said that entering the week Ichiro had 54 infield hits, more than 25 percent of his 200 hits total. Luis Castillo(notes) of the Mets was second with 39, with Michael Bourn(notes) of the Astros third with 38. Denard Span(notes) of the Twins (34), Emilio Bonifacio(notes) of the Marlins (32) and Scott Podsednik(notes) of the White Sox (31) rounded out the top six.

Of his infield hits, Kaplan calculated that Ichiro had eight bunt singles. Bourn and Bonifacio each had 15.

Ichiro, who has had 200-plus hits in each of his nine major league seasons, is one season away from tying Pete Rose for most 200-hit seasons. Rose's 10 did not come consecutively.

Folks are busting with pride in Japan.

"Only Ichiro can break a 100-year-old major league record," Shigeo Nagashima, who ranks with Sadaharu Oh as Japan's most revered players, told Kyodo News. "He respects the game and has strengthened mentally and physically. I hope he continues to improve and brings more dreams to children – future baseball players."

Fungo hitting: On the same day Cliff Lee(notes) was pitching his first shutout for the Phillies to run his record to 7-2 since his trade from the Indians, 19-year-old pitcher Jason Knapp, the central player in the package that went back to Cleveland, was having arthroscopic surgery to remove what was described as loose bodies in his right shoulder. Knapp was on the DL with biceps tendinitis when the trade was made, but the Phillies had not taken an MRI and the Indians were unaware of the loose tissue in the shoulder. Cleveland medical officials said the loose tissue caused the tendinitis, but the Indians say they have no intention of filing a grievance. … Circle the date: Mannypalooza is scheduled for the weekend of June 18-20 next season, when the Los Angeles Dodgers are scheduled to visit Boston to play Manny Ramirez's(notes) former team, the Red Sox, in interleague play. The expectation is that Manny won't spoil the occasion by tweaking his hamstring, but he is expected to exercise his player's option for $20 million and remain with the Dodgers. … The Minnesota Twins are scheduled to play their first game in their new park, Target Field, on April 12, against Boston. Target Field is an open-air facility; average temperatures in Minneapolis for that date are a high of 55 degrees and a low of 35. Exhibitions against the Cardinals are scheduled for April 2 and 3; parkas are optional. … And congratulations to Hal McCoy, the eminent baseball writer who will be honored by the Cincinnati Reds in pregame ceremonies Wednesday night. McCoy is "retiring" after 37 years, to employ the euphemism that sadly appears too often in the newspaper business these days.