BOSTON – Baseball providence, that little scamp, comes to Fenway Park on Sunday night in search of one more soft touch.
Having given us the Colorado Rockies, Manny Ramirez press conferences and a throw-back New York Yankees week, having prodded J.D. Drew and Curt Schilling in time to prolong the American League championship series, there remains undone yet another fateful task.
In the finale of an ALCS that has lurched from bizarre (C.C. Sabathia, Fausto Carmona oh-fers) to routine (Josh Beckett, Ramirez supremacy), from who-cares to must-see, the Boston Red Sox clear the mound for Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Three years to the day after the Red Sox finished off the Yankees in the ALCS that defined a team, three years and a day after Schilling sprung a leak into that sanitary sock, the Red Sox on Saturday night won their biggest game since, by a flattering 12-2.
So, they will play their third consecutive elimination game. Only this time they've invited the Cleveland Indians to share the stress, to bear the misplay at the wrong moment, the imprecise pitcher on the wrong night, the single bad game.
The Indians have lost two in a row, played poorly two games in a row, and been outscored 22-3 since the middle of Game 4. A series they once appeared to own has swung to the Red Sox.
"It just has to stop, and it has to stop [Sunday] night," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "They need to go to bed tonight with clear heads and think good thoughts and come here tomorrow expecting to win."
And into Game 7, at the end of U.S. Year 1, steps Matsuzaka, among the most spectacular player acquisitions in Red Sox history. He cost them $103 million in posting fees and salary, inspired them in his initial starts, and generally satisfied them over the course of the regular season.
The Red Sox – their owner and general manager – went all in for Matsuzaka because of the potential for these occasions, and his taste for them. He began building his big-game reputation in Japan as long ago as high school, then in eight seasons for the Seibu Lions, then in the World Baseball Classic, and then stood coolly amid the crowds and fervor of Boston.
He made 32 starts for the Red Sox. He threw more than 200 innings. He won 15 games.
There was, however, a tepid September, followed by an alarming October, leading, presumably, to some trepidation in The Nation.
From two games down, the Red Sox spent Beckett and Schilling, two of the better October pitchers in the game, to get here.
What that got them – happily, given the alternative – was Matsuzaka, with his homeland leaning in, with Boston leaning in, all at a time when Matsuzaka isn't pitching particularly well.
His ERA over the final month of the season was 7.62. In the postseason, in one start against the Los Angeles Angels and another against the Yankees, it is 6.75. The pitcher who introduced himself by throwing five or six different pitches for strikes, who impassively carved up big-league hitters and strike zones, has recently lacked that accuracy.
Scouts suggest the labors of the five-man rotation (one fewer than the standard in Japan) might have wearied Matsuzaka. Possibly, the grind of a season away from his country, of new conversations and unfamiliar ballparks and of major-league lineups that seem to go on forever, have taken their toll.
Just as he did after Game 3, in which he threw 101 pitches and allowed four runs in 4 2/3 innings, Matsuzaka spent a long time after Game 6 staring dolefully into his locker.
Through a translator late Saturday night, he said it really wasn't as bad as it might have looked after his start.
"Whether or not we had won or lost, immediately following the game is a very important period for me," he said. "Although I might have appeared very upset, I wasn't as upset as everybody thought."
The Red Sox hand their season to him, probably with Beckett and Tim Wakefield at the ready. But, Matsuzaka won't want that, another salvage job like there was against the Angels, another untidy start when the expectations are so high. He's not here to get the ball to Beckett in the fourth inning.
He's here to be better than that.
Among the perks in the six-year, $52-million contract he received last December, Matsuzaka was to get the keys to a Lincoln Town Car ("or similar car"). It would be bad form if the Indians sent a limousine instead.
"I believe, based on his makeup, based on his demeanor, he's going to do something special tomorrow," said Schilling, who might know.
Schilling is 4-0 with a 1.37 ERA in the five postseason elimination games he's started, the very notable among them being Game 7 of the 2001 World Series and Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS.
Matsuzaka, however, has yet to win a big game for the Red Sox. The last time he pitched well was more than three weeks ago. And Jake Westbrook, who starts for the Indians, in Game 3 allowed only two runs in 6 2/3 innings.
"After the last few games I believed I was going to have a chance to throw again," he said. "My teammates kept insisting I would have another chance. So, I'm going into tomorrow very excited."
The series returns to Matsuzaka. Baseball providence will be watching.
- Red Sox