First pitch: Fitting end to Matsuzaka's time with Sox


First pitch: Fitting end to Matsuzaka's time with Sox

NEW YORK -- It began, six years ago, with promise and mystique.

It will end, Wednesday night, in disappointment and indifference.

The Daisuke Matsuzaka Era, it turns out, was not so much as era as much as it was six seasons of mixed results, nagging injuries and confounding cultural differences.

There were occasional highs, but mostly, little beyond the ordinary. And the last thing anyone expected was that Matsuzaka would be ordinary.

He averaged just over eight wins per season, and the last few years, seemed to spend more time on the disabled list than he did on the mound.

Perhaps expectations were too high in the first place. But when the Sox won the bidding for Matsuzaka, then signed him to a six-year deal, there was every expectation that they had landed a surpremely talented pitcher.

His legend began from his high school career, when he became something of a national hero, and grew with his dominant performance on the international stage.

At 26, it seemed the Red Sox were getting a premier pitcher just entering his prime.

Even his signing took on the look of a Hollywood blockbuster, with the Red Sox engaging in some high-stakes, hardball negotiations with the pitcher's agent, Scott Boras.

It took an ultimatum on the part of the Sox -- and John Henry's idling private plane at nearby John Wayne International Airport -- to get the pitcher signed to a contract. Together with the posting bid, the Sox had spent 103 million.

It seemed like a good investment.

After all, Matsuzaka was said to have an almost limitless supply of pitches -- including one, the "gyroball,'' which may or may not have actually existed -- and potential star quality. A small army of reporters followed Matsuzaka to Boston and his games became must-see events in his native Japan.

From the beginning, there was reason for optimism. Matsuzaka pitched seven innings in his major league debut on April 5, 2007, limiting the Kansas City Royals to a single run while striking out 10.

A star was born.

In his first season, Matsuzaka was 15-12 with 2004 23 innings and 201 strikeouts, and if the ERA was a little high (4.40), well, that was a small blemish on an otherwise auspicious introduction to the big leagues.

The following year, Matsuzaka was even better, with 18 wins and a 2.90 ERA. He allowed the fewest hits per nine innings of any American League starter and suddenly, the 103 million seemed like a brilliant investment.

Then, it seemed to go very wrong. All along, Matsuzaka seemed at odds with the Red Sox suggestions for training, conditioning, between-starts workload and general pitching philosophy.

He wanted to throw more; they wanted him to throw less. They wanted him to attack the strike zone; he wanted to avoid pitching to contact.

A glut of injuries arose -- shoulder weakness, lat strains, muscle pulls -- and a divide continued over where he would spend his off-seasons.

After his second season in Boston, he never again experienced the same level of success. Following the first two seasons in which he averaged 16.5 wins, he never again reached double figures in victories.

In fact, he seldom pitched, period. After averaging 30 starts in his first two seasons, he combined to make 30 starts in 2008, 2009, 2011 and this year.

What went wrong? Even now, with the benefit of hindsight, it's difficult to say. Culturally and otherwise, Matsuzaka never seemed to make the adjustment to the U.S. and Major League Baseball.

He remained distant from his teammates, unwilling or unable to communicate in anything other than his native language. He clung, stubbornly at times, to training methods that seemed ill-suited for MLB. And six years after his arrival, there remain questions about whether elite Japanese pitchers can succeed long-term here.

Tonight, he takes the mound for what is almost certainly his last appearance in a Red Sox uniform. It will be in a game with absolutely no consequence for the Sox, so it is perhaps sadly fitting that Matsuzaka be the starter.

The final game of a season in which the Sox fell ridiculously short of expectations will be started by a pitcher who seldom came close to realizing his own expectations -- and those of the team which invested so much in him.

NLCS: Cubs eliminate Dodgers, reach Series for first time since 1945


NLCS: Cubs eliminate Dodgers, reach Series for first time since 1945

CHICAGO -- Cursed by a Billy Goat, bedeviled by Bartman and crushed by decades of disappointment, the Chicago Cubs are at long last headed back to the World Series.

Kyle Hendricks outpitched Clayton KershawAnthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras homered early and the Cubs won their first pennant since 1945, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 Saturday night in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series.

The drought ended when closer Aroldis Chapman got Yasiel Puig to ground into a double play, setting off a wild celebration inside Wrigley Field, outside the ballpark and all over the city.

Seeking their first crown since 1908, manager Joe Maddon's team opens the World Series at Cleveland on Tuesday night. The Indians haven't won it all since 1948 - Cleveland and Cubs have the two longest title waits in the majors.

"This city deserves it so much," Rizzo said. "We got four more big ones to go, but we're going to enjoy this. We're going to the World Series. I can't even believe that."

All-everything Javier Baez and pitcher Jon Lester shared the NLCS MVP. Baez hit .318, drove in five runs and made several sharp plays at second base. Lester, a former World Series champion in Boston, was 1-0 with a 1.38 ERA in two starts against the Dodgers.

Deemed World Series favorites since opening day, the Cubs topped the majors with 103 wins to win the NL Central, then beat the Giants and Dodgers in the playoffs.

The Cubs overcame a 2-1 deficit against the Dodgers and won their 17th pennant. They had not earned a World Series trip since winning a doubleheader opener 4-3 at Pittsburgh on Sept. 29, 1945, to clinch the pennant on the next-to-last day of the season.

The eternal "wait till next year" is over. No more dwelling on a history of failure - the future is now.

"We're too young. We don't care about it," star slugger Kris Bryant said. "We don't look into it. This is a new team, this is a completely different time of our lives. We're enjoying it and our work's just getting started."

Hendricks pitched two-hit ball for 7 1/3 innings. Chapman took over and closed with hitless relief, then threw both arms in the air as he was mobbed by teammates and coaches.

The crowd joined in, chanting and serenading their team.

"Chicago!" shouted popular backup catcher David Ross.

The Cubs shook off back-to-back shutout losses earlier in this series by pounding the Dodgers for 23 runs to win the final three games.

And they were in no way overwhelmed by the moment on Saturday, putting aside previous frustration.

In 1945, the Billy Goat Curse supposedly began when a tavern owner wasn't allowed to bring his goat to Wrigley. In 2003, the Cubs lost the final three games of the NLCS to Florida, punctuated with a Game 6 defeat when fan Steve Bartman deflected a foul ball.

Even as recently as 2012, the Cubs lost 101 times.

This time, no such ill luck.

Bryant had an RBI single and scored in a two-run first. Dexter Fowler added two hits, drove in a run and scored one.

Contreras led off the fourth with a homer. Rizzo continued his resurgence with a solo drive in the fifth.

That was plenty for Hendricks, the major league ERA leader.

Hendricks left to a standing ovation after Josh Reddick singled with one out in the eighth. The only other hit Hendricks allowed was a single by Andrew Toles on the game's first pitch.

Kershaw, dominant in Game 2 shutout, gave up five runs and seven hits before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the sixth. He fell to 4-7 in the postseason.

The Dodgers haven't been to the World Series since winning in 1988.

Pitching on five days' rest, the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner threw 30 pitches in the first. Fowler led off with a double, and Bryant's single had the crowd shaking the 102-year-old ballpark.

They had more to cheer when left fielder Andrew Toles dropped Rizzo's fly, putting runners on second and third, and Ben Zobrist made it 2-0 a sacrifice fly.

The Cubs added a run in the second when Addison Russell doubled to deep left and scored on a two-out single by Fowler.


Maddon benched slumping right fielder Jason Heyward in favor of Albert Almora Jr.

"Kershaw's pitching, so I wanted to get one more right-handed bat in the lineup, and also with Albert I don't feel like we're losing anything on defense," Maddon said. "I know Jason's a Gold Glover, but I think Albert, given an opportunity to play often enough would be considered a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder, too."

Heyward was 2 for 28 in the playoffs - 1 for 16 in the NLCS.


Kerry Wood, wearing a Ron Santo jersey, threw out the first pitch and actor Jim Belushi delivered the "Play Ball!" call before the game. Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder and actor John Cusack were also in attendance. And Bulls great Scottie Pippen led the seventh-inning stretch.