This is the Matsuzaka you’ve been waiting for.
While I’m not about to get overexcited from 1 good start, Dice-K’s performance on Tuesday at Fenway was most encouraging: 7 innings, 1 run 3 hits, and 9 strikeouts.
Do you notice what’s missing? If you said walks, then you’ll surely appreciate what that means. Matsuzaka is a guy who has averaged nearly a half a walk per inning over his career, yet in his third start of the season he was able to avoid issuing even a single free pass.
Again, it’s only one game. But it was significant in terms of giving the team and fans hope that Matsuzaka can pull it together and be effective in 2010.
Toronto’s only run came in the sixth on pair of doubles by John Buck and Fred Lewis. He did have 1 wild pitch that advanced Buck to third, but Lewis’ shot was to deep center and likely would have scored even a catcher from anywhere on the basepaths. Other than those hiccups, all Dice-K allowed was an infield single.
Eliminating the walks was critical to Matsuzaka’s success. In his other 2 starts this year, a bad inning ruined his chances at victory, and over his career such innings have resulted from a few well-timed hits coupled with damage that Dice-K brings on himself. This time he avoided helping his opponents out by staying aggressive and well within the strike zone. Matsuzaka needed only 106 pitches to get through 7 innings, and threw more than two thirds of those for strikes. He simplified his approach, relying on a very live fastball.
This was only the second time in his last full season’s worth of starts (33) that Matsuzaka avoided surrendering a walk.
Boston’s offense took advantage of his stellar night and of Toronto’s lackluster defense and wild pitching. The Sox drew a total of 8 walks and capitalized on a couple of bloops that found their way under or over Jays’ gloves.
As has often been the case this year, the top of the order was the catalyst for runs. In the first, Marco Scutaro walked and Dustin Pedroia smashed a ground rule double into the right field stands. Scoots scored on a groundout by J.D. Drew, who returned from vertigo issues. Pedroia scored on a Kevin Youkilis sac fly.
A solo home run by Jason Varitek made it 3-0 in the second; the captain is thriving in his role as backup catcher and is now up to 6 homers in 43 plate appearances. In contrast, he totaled 14 homers last season…in 425 trips to the plate. Perhaps a reduced role has kept him fresh.
In the fourth, Varitek singled through the legs of Toronto’s Jose Bautista, and advanced to second on a single by Bill Hall that fell safely between 3 confused Jays’ fielders. Tek then scored on a double by Darnell McDonald.
The final 2 runs came in the fifth, Drew laid down a surprise bunt to third, reaching safely. Youkilis was walked by starter Dana Eveland, who departed after issuing the pass. His relief, Shawn Camp, couldn’t hold the runners; he walked Mike Lowell to load the bases, then allowed Drew to score on a wild pitch. After striking out Adrian Beltre, he intentionally walked the hot-hitting Varitek to set up the double play, but didn’t get it. Instead, he had to settle for a fielder’s choice that erased Tek at second while allowing Youkilis to score.
That put the lead at 6-0 and closed Eveland’s line at 4 innings, 6 runs on 6 hits and 4 walks, and 2 strikeouts. Despite allowing 4 walks of his own, Camp managed to prevent any further scoring, and Casey Janssen and Jason Frasor closed out the game for the Jays.
Matsuzaka’s night was followed by a pair of scoreless innings from Ramon Ramirez and Hideki Okajima. Pedroia, Drew, and Varitek each collected 2 hits. The victory moved Boston to 18-16 on the season, and the Sox now trail the Jays for third place by a mere half game. They can sweep the series and move into sole possession of third with a win on Wednesday– Tim Wakefield will face Shaun Marcum in the finale.