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In Boston, they are saying everything is hunky dory. Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) is back, minus a bit of the spare tire he carried into spring training, and the Red Sox are welcoming him with open arms, because the price on forgiveness is, oh, $28 million or so.
The Red Sox still owe Matsuzaka that much over the next three years, and they've already invested $75 million for his first three years, and so they're not going public with the scorned-lover feeling that surely permeates the organization. The Red Sox met Matsuzaka's petty airing of grievances over how the team handled his workload with muted public retorts.
What could they do? They had an overweight, overpaid, underachieving, insubordinate pitcher on the disabled list with a tired shoulder. He was already a bust for the money paid. Lambaste him publicly and it neuters his trade value – or whatever of it remains.
Because he is relatively cheap over the next three years, the Red Sox do have options. Though the first, and most preferable, is letting Matsuzaka right himself and help push Boston past Texas and into the playoffs. He's back Tuesday with the Red Sox after four minor league rehab starts. And as the Red Sox play 20 games in 20 days to end the season, much of their focus – and the baseball world's – will revolve around …
1. The supposed maestro of the gyroball. OK, so maybe Daisuke Matsuzaka doesn't throw the gyro. He does have a fastball, cutter, slider, curveball, changeup and splitter in his arsenal, and the biggest question upon Matsuzaka's return is: Are any of them good?
Not one fooled hitters during Matsuzaka's eight starts earlier this season, according to FanGraphs, which also shows that while Matsuzaka's flyball rate stayed the same as previous years, his line-drive rate spiked 8 percent. Such is the formula for an 8.23 ERA and 59 hits in 32 innings.
Matsuzaka's last start was dynamite: 6 2/3 innings, one run and seven strikeouts. It also came against Class A hitters. The real test comes Tuesday, when …
2. The second-highest-scoring team in baseball, the Los Angeles Angels, visit Boston in the middle of a gauntlet over the Red Sox, Rangers and Yankees. Granted, the Angels' offense has been bunk this month, save for Bobby Abreu(notes), the epitome of what makes the Angels yearly contenders. They waited for the free-agent market to settle and landed the perfect No. 3 hitter for $5 million.
Surely he'll cost more next year, particularly after sustaining his numbers throughout the season and into September, when he's hitting .333 with a .500 on-base percentage and .528 slugging percentage. Los Angeles is 8-4 this month because of its 2.00 ERA – and Abreu scoring nearly 20 percent of his team's runs. They'll need that Abreu all week, and Sunday especially, instead of …
3. The one who hasn't hit Scott Feldman(notes) this year. Abreu is 1 for 8 against the Texas right-hander, whose Cy Young candidacy ought not take any sort of foothold – repeat, please: Greinke, Greinke, Greinke – but whose performance this season would certainly earn him breakout player of the year if any such award existed.
Earlier this season we told you about Feldman's cut fastball. Not only is it still the best cutter in baseball, it's the third-best pitch as far as value, behind only Tim Lincecum's(notes) changeup and Randy Wolf's(notes) fastball. Kevin Millwood(notes) may be the Rangers' most experienced starter, and if they can push past Boston, he would probably go in Game 1 of the division series. Make no mistake: Feldman is their ace, even if he has only 95 strikeouts in 163 2/3 innings, proving you can win without Ks, much like …
4. CC Sabathia(notes) did Sunday. Sabathia didn't record his first strikeout until the seventh inning against Baltimore, and that took eight pitches to Jeff Fiorentino(notes). It didn't seem a stuff issue. Sabathia's fastball sat at 94 mph, his slider bit and his changeup faded. Sometimes, guys just get bats on balls, and Sabathia slinked by anyway.
Still, the Yankees need him to be more like the Sabathia of the previous seven starts: 63 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings. Pitching in the new Yankee Stadium necessitates missing bats. Though the Yankees can outslug nearly every team in baseball, they don't want to get into a swinging-stick contest in a short series. Better they try to make like …
5. Tim Lincecum and strike out everything that moves. Lincecum returns today after missing a start because of a sore back, and he does so in an integral series against Colorado. The last time San Francisco and the Rockies played, the Giants swept a weekend series and tied Colorado for the wild-card lead. Now the Giants are 4½ games back, and Colorado could salt away a playoff spot by paying back the sweep.
It will mark the third time Lincecum has faced Colorado in the last three weeks. He gave up three runs and lost the first. He outdueled Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) with eight shutout innings in the second. Whether the third is a charm has plenty to do with Lincecum, of course, though perhaps as important …
6. Is Keith Dugger. Never heard of him, eh? Dugger is one of the great anonymous toilers of baseball: the athletic trainer. And his work is plentiful as the Rockies ready themselves for another playoff run.
Let's see: Jimenez has a balky hamstring and Troy Tulowitzki(notes) an ornery back. That takes care of Colorado's best pitcher and everyday player. Then there's the closer on the disabled list (Huston Street(notes), biceps tendinitis), the veteran starter there as well (Aaron Cook(notes), sore shoulder) and the rookie standout to boot (Dexter Fowler(notes), knee). The Rockies traded for Jose Contreras(notes) to replace Cook. He left his last start with a quadriceps issue.
If the Rockies hope to succeed in October, they need Jimenez, Tulowitzki and Street healthy, plus Cook and Fowler available. Dugger deserves a raise if he can manage that. Because while every team has its bumps and bruises, trainers allow the best to play through them without acting stupid …
7. Which is exactly the tack of Hanley Ramirez(notes) this season. Florida's shortstop continues to amaze as he ignores nagging injuries and keeps the Marlins in striking distance of Philadelphia and the NL wild card, and even if he is a selfish boor – as Dan Uggla(notes) asserted, and others likewise contend – he's one with enough talent for teammates to accept and ignore it.
Because not everyone can hit better than .350 with more than 25 home runs and 25 stolen bases. Actually, only two people have done it. And yet Ramirez is on the cusp, his batting average at .361, his home runs at 23 and stolen bases at 25 after swiping one Sunday. The first player to go .350-25-25 was Larry Walker in 1997, and the last was Darin Erstad(notes) in 2000, a feat seen …
8. From the front row by Joe Maddon. Those were better days. His Tampa Bay Rays' losing streak now stands at 11. No other team in baseball has lost more than 10, and that team was Kansas City. How such a talented team – one that crashed the World Series last year – could so quickly disintegrate is a question Maddon will spend all offseason trying to answer.
Losing Carlos Pena(notes) hurt. So did trading Scott Kazmir(notes) as he regained his mojo. Still, 11 consecutive losses is incredible for a team with the talent of the Rays – a team, frankly, with every bit as much talent as, say, Boston or Texas, and plenty more than Detroit.
In the middle of the season, as the Rays clawed back into contention, it seemed as though their slow start was a fluke. Now, we know the truth: They're a franchise that, for the first time, is feeling the weight of expectations crashing in on themselves. Loss No. 11 …
9. Was particularly harrowing in the way Jon Lester(notes) just tore through the Rays: eight innings, two hits, seven strikeouts and a bunch of zeroes on the scoreboard. Some food, then, for Cy Young thought:
Pitcher A: 213 1/3 innings, 3.42 ERA, 178-to-58 strikeout-to-walk ratio
Pitcher B: 188 2/3 innings, 3.29 ERA, 211-to-60 strikeout-to-walk ratio
Pitcher A is CC Sabathia. Pitcher B is Jon Lester. Sabathia is likely to get lots of Cy Young support because of his 17 wins. Lester is Greinke Lite, with 13 victories. Just know that since May 31, Lester has been the best pitcher in the AL by a longshot. He is the ace that …
10. Daisuke Matsuzaka was supposed to be. And maybe it's still in there. Lest we forget: Matsuzaka is only 29 and has proven himself a big-game pitcher in two World Baseball Classics. He won a World Series in his first season in the major leagues, which was plagued with inconsistency. Then Matsuzaka followed last year with an 18-3 record, a 2.90 ERA and flashes of dominance.
Is he a $103 million pitcher? No. Not close. But that money is spent, long gone down the Boston bad-contract toilet. All the Red Sox want him to be now is what he is. And that's the issue. Three years later, they're still not sure.