BOSTON -- Daisuke Matsuzaka knows what everyone says about Tommy John surgery. You'll throw harder afterwards. Assuming everybody's body reacts differently, and whether or not that will eventually be the case with Matsuzaka, Red Sox pitching coach Randy Niemann knows exactly why he was able to pick up his first win of the season on Monday afternoon.
"As he's progressed along, I think his fastball has gotten a little better," said Niemann after Boston's 5-1 win over the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park. "And again, maybe not velocity-wise, but there's a life to his pitches, that, when you're back to full strength, there's a finishing life to him that I think he's gotten back. Evidence is, the hitters when they swing at it. It's not as easy to square the ball up. I'm seeing more and more of that with each outing. Every time that he's had a chance to be out there for us, I'm seeing more and more of that."
So it wasn't the velocity of Matsuzaka's fastball on Monday, it was the life and movement on his fastball, especially when the ball reached the hitter.
Matsuzaka returned to the Red Sox in June after fully recovering from Tommy John surgery. He then went back on the DL in July with a neck injury, only to make his second return on Monday.
"When I returned back in June, and I didn't get the results I wanted to, I thought for a moment that I wouldn't be able to pitch a game like today, this season," said Matsuzaka through his translator after Monday's win. "But I got back to my rehab and my last two rehab starts in Pawtucket went really well. I felt really good. And I knew that if I was able to pitch like that up here, the results will come.
"When I had to go back on the DL, back in July, it was very discouraging. Especially since I didn't expect my body to respond the way it did. But the encouraging part about that was, it wasn't my elbow. My elbow was feeling fine. So, despite not being sure whether I'd be able to come back strong this season and pitch a game like I did today, I was able to work at it, and the results eventually started to come."
Those results came in the form of 101 pitches in seven innings against the Royals. He allowed just one run, though it was unearned, walked two, and struck out six while giving up five hits.
It was exactly what the Red Sox needed.
"I saw a good pitcher who used all his pitches," said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine after the win. "I thought the 2-ball, 1-strike count turned the game around about five times, where he was able to throw his breaking ball for a strike. And I thought he had good control of his cutter, on the outside part to right-handers. He got hit a couple times back-dooring to left-handers, but you know, he gave us what we needed. 100 pitches, seven innings, five hits. That's a good outing."
Valentine believes that Matsuzaka has the ability to finish the season "strong" if he throws like he did today. For Matsuzaka, that will be a good thing, more so for his own impending free agency, than it will for a Red Sox team that is essentially out of the playoff race.
But, I guess you can't tell him that.
"I've actually never experienced going into free agency, even in Japan," said Matsuzaka through his translator on Monday. "So I don't know exactly what to expect in free agency. I'm not really thinking about that at all. Right now, I'm more focused on the playoffs, and figuring out how I can contribute to the team and get the team in a position where we can be competitive."
In reality, the only thing Matsuzaka will be pitching for -- from now until the end of the regular season -- is a new contract. And if he can continue what he did on Monday against the Royals, somebody will give him another one.
It just might not be the Red Sox.