Dice-K takes a bite out of Apple

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

NEW YORK – Rain fell most of the day here, heavy at times, turning the streets into a gnarled mess of gridlock and brake lights.

So when Daisuke Matsuzaka took the mound at 7:20 p.m., took center stage at Yankee Stadium, the place was almost half empty. There was little intensity amidst the lingering mist as all those throaty New Yorkers sat in traffic.

The Japanese sensation seemed to look around and shrug. This was supposed to be hallowed ground in a heated rivalry, his supposed nervous opening night on Broadway, the true test of his mettle: Yankees-Red Sox in South Bronx.

Instead he spent the first three innings heading to the mound by bouncing out of the dugout, breaking into a lively jog before making a silly skip across the third-base line. He looked like a carefree soul going to play wiffleball with his buddies.

This Yankee Stadium stuff was no sweat, three scoreless innings up and down.

But now this was the fourth inning, streets cleared, Stadium full and the whole thing coming down on Dice-K. This is what he had been warned about.

He had walked the bases loaded. He had given up a blooper to left and then eventually a couple of singles to right and now it was four runs in, Stadium going nuts, Yankees in the lead, the whole place pouncing on the Sox's new savior, trying to show him this is New York, this is different, this is no place to skip.

"In the fourth inning, when I found myself in a little trouble, I heard the massive ovation for the Yankees," Matsuzaka said through an interpreter. "It was one of the loudest I've experienced in my career."

With the Yankees leading 4-2, dangerous Bobby Abreu was up, two down, runners on the corners. Alex Rodriguez and his Cooperstown start to the season were waiting on deck. Everyone was watching for Dice-K to fold like so many others had before him, everyone expecting this game to get busted wide open.

"It can definitely deflate you," Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said of the scene.

Matsuzaka slowed the game to a crawl. He rubbed the ball. He looked around. He took a little walk behind the mound. It was twenty, thirty seconds between each pitch. And finally he got Abreu to fly out harmlessly to left, a bad inning indeed, but nothing fatal.

He had showed poise, showed experience and then showed up in the fifth and sixth innings and retired the Yankees in order. By the time he left to a dugout full of congratulatory hugs, Boston led 6-4 en route to an easy 11-4 victory.

By the end, Dice-K had shown he had guile and gumption to go along with all those crazy off-speed pitches.

"He was able to compose himself, settle down and settle in and make pitches," Varitek said. "He went back out there and kept us in the game."

This wasn't some magical performance for the books. But it was just the kind of gut-check the Red Sox wanted to see out of their $103 million gamble.

They didn't spend that kind of money to get a pitcher to beat Tampa Bay and Kansas City. They did it to get a guy who could come to New York and beat their forever rival, beat them even on nights when everything isn't going smoothly.

"That was a difficult inning," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I think he threw 41 pitches. We're in the dugout wondering how long he can go and then he goes out and gives us two more strong innings."

Matsuzaka's stuff was at times inconsistent, but still effective and intriguing. The diversity of his pitches is impressive, six or seven different variations – "my fingers just get cramped," joked Varitek. He threw in the mid-90s and low-70s. He had multiple off-speed pitches that were so confusing the Yankee Stadium scoreboard called them all "cutters."

Whatever they were, they mostly worked.

At 3-2 with a 4.36 ERA, he isn't reinventing the game, but no one from Boston is concerned. The adjustment process – from the new hitters to pitching on four days' rest rather than the five he had in Japan – was part of the deal.

"I think overall I've been too cautious," Matsuzaka said. "But I think this is a natural phase I need to get over."

For the Red Sox, all that mattered was that he got it done. In this rivalry, where even April games have a big-time feel, that can't be discounted.

Yankees starter Andy Pettitte has 187 career victories and was in his 23rd career start against Boston. Yet he melted down in the fifth with four walks and a wild pitch as the Red Sox ran him out of the game with three lead-taking runs.

Granted, this is hardly a vintage Yankee team that Dice-K beat. They are 8-13, in last place, losers of seven consecutive games for the first time since the end of the 2000 season, when they basically rested for an inevitable World Series victory. They have bad pitching – Roger Clemens' price is going up by the day – and, at times, lifeless hitting.

The Yankees will be better and will be back – last year they were tied for last in May and still won the American League East. And, yes, this is April, not October.

But none of that is Matsuzaka's fault.

He came to New York, stared down the bright lights, felt the pressure of this nuclear rivalry and delivered a victory.

In the end, he skipped back out onto the field to congratulate his teammates as Frank Sinatra blared out of the Stadium speakers, into the New York night, singing about making it here, singing about making it anywhere.

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