Francona plays Texan hold 'em

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

CLEVELAND – For 27 minutes, Daisuke Matsuzaka sat silently in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse and stared into his locker. As his teammates dressed and chatted and even shared a few laughs, his only motions were switching his hands from behind his head to crossing them in front of his chest.

Matsuzaka just had pitched a disappointing 4 2/3 innings as his Boston Red Sox fell into a two-games-to-one hole in the American League championship series with a 4-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Monday. Eventually, he got up for some food, a plate of fish and ribs that he ate alone before going back to his locker to stare again, 24 more minutes of brooding silence.

Finally he said a couple of things to a Red Sox translator who turned it into a two-sentence statement, then Matsuzaka went back to searching his locker for answers.

Half a clubhouse away, sprawled out on a big leather couch was Josh Beckett, the big Texan, sipping Bud Lights and sharing jokes, some of them even clean, with David Ortiz. Cool and collected, the Boston ace watched the early innings of the NLCS, physically just 20 feet away from his teammate but mentally and emotionally a world away.

Different people have different personalities, of course, and it's manager Terry Francona's job to read how each is handling the pressure of October. But to the uninitiated, Matsuzaka looks as shot mentally as he appears spent physically.

In that mood, with that look, you wouldn't let Dice-K mow your lawn, let alone try to salvage your season.

Despite that, Francona won't make the sensible move. He won't push Beckett up in the rotation and start him instead of veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in a critical Game 4 of this series on Tuesday.

Even as he needs to win three of the next four games, Francona won't set it up so he can hand the ball to his ace twice and his struggling pitcher zero times.

He won't go Beckett, then Wakefield, then Curt Schilling and then Beckett again on full rest if a Game 7 is necessary. It's a move that would put his best and loosest pitchers on the hill while giving Matsuzaka, exhausted and fading, the layoff he appears so desperately to need.

"I think sometimes you can get short-sighted if the need for panic arises, like perceived panic," Francona said. "If you lose a couple games everybody wants you to immediately change what you've set up.

"The reason we set it up like this is because we think it gives us the best chance to win a series. Doing something like that may give you a chance to win a game (or) it may not, but it doesn't set up the rest of the series."

That's if there is a rest of the series. And if so, do you really want the guy staring into his locker standing on the mound for a white-knuckle Game 7?

Cleveland's 4-2 victory was punctuated by another lackluster Dice-K start. He again couldn't get out of the fifth inning, needing 101 pitches to make it that far. He gave up six hits and four runs before leaving Mike Timlin to bail him out of a two-on jam. It was practically a repeat performance of his ALDS effort.

"It's a lot of pitches," said Francona. "It's a lot of deep counts. The more pitches you throw, especially to dangerous hitters, the better chance you give them."

The Red Sox spent $103 million on Matsuzaka last winter, signing the sensation amid much fanfare (the landing of his flight into New England was carried live on local television).

But pitching on four, rather than Japan's traditional five, days of rest has proved draining. He won 15 games, but his September ERA was 7.62. His postseason number now is 6.75.

Meanwhile, Beckett, the possible Cy Young Award winner, has been dominant in two starts.

Sending pitchers out on three days rest has fallen out of favor in recent years, whether due to a coddling of arms or a history of mixed results. Gone are the days of setting up your ace to pitch Games 1, 4, and 7, trying to win a series with practically one guy.

But Beckett is different. He threw just 86 pitches Saturday to take Game 1, so he couldn't be that fatigued. And he has produced some legendary performances on short rest in his career – including a complete-game shutout to close the 2003 World Series in Yankee Stadium for the Florida Marlins.

Mostly, though, this isn't about getting Beckett more opportunities to dominate, nor is it about aggressively making Game 4 the critical contest of the series.

It's about giving a break to the guy sitting crushed in front of his locker, the weight of the world on his tired shoulders.

It's about going with the loose ace on the couch over the bundle of doubt in the corner.

Francona would call that panic, and as the only manager ever to lead a playoff comeback from three games to none, he probably never panics, even if a frantic fan base demands answers. He's going with the rotation he set, going with the players that got him here.

"(Wakefield's) pitching," Francona said when asked of a possible change.

It may not be a leaving-Pedro-in kind of thing, but Francona had better be right. He had better know his players better than anyone else.

Because while patient always may sound better than panic; proactive is better than both.

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