Matsuzaka responds nicely after first-inning trouble

Matsuzaka responds nicely after first-inning trouble
June 27, 2012, 5:39 am
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BOSTON Whatever Bobby Valentine said to Daisuke Matsuzaka with one out in the first inning, runners on second and third, and one run already in, worked.

In the first inning against the Blue Jays Tuesday night, Matsuzaka looked like he was prepared to deliver a repeat performance of the 33-pitch, 3-run first-inning jam that doomed his last outing. He went to three-ball counts on each of the first three batters he faced, throwing 20 pitches. The result: a lead-off nine-pitch single by Brett Lawrie on a 3-2 pitch, Colby Rasmus reaching on a fielders choice on a 3-1 count, and Jose Bautista popping out in foul territory to catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia on a 3-1 pitch.

Matsuzaka had runners on first and second with one out and the dangerous Edwin Encarnacion coming up.

Encarnacion ripped a first-pitch shot at Will Middlebrooks for a run-scoring single, taking second on Middlebrooks errant throw. That drew the visit from Valentine to check on his right-hander and get him settled.

Matsuzaka retired the next two batters on just three pitches to get out of the inning. He didnt allow another run in the rest of his outing, going 5 23 innings, giving up one run on six hits and walk with five strikeouts. Matsuzaka, who wasnt involved in the decision, as the Sox beat the Jays, 5-1, threw 100 pitches, 60 for strikes.

So, what did Valentine, whois conversant in Japanese, say to the right-hander?

There wasnt any magic, Valentine said. I just asked him if he believed himself and he was ready to go. He can kind of forget about the stuff that happened. He said, 'yes, yes, yes.' He pitched pretty well. In the first inning, a nine-pitch at-bat wound up with a hit, a ground ball that winds up without an out. And to give up one run in that inning is good pitching.

Thats his best effort yet.

Despite the initial struggle, there was enough to like in Matsuzakas outing.

Even in the first inning I thought he was attacking the zone more, said pitching coach Bob McClure. The key to any start, really, those first few pitches are key, plus with no one on. And he has the ability going to ball one he can even the count up, or if he commands the fastball he can use that to even up the count.

But early in the count it looked like tonight was the best Ive seen him trying to attack early with strikes. Because if he gets anyone on the defense with his stuff, if he gets guys 0-2, 1-2, even 2-2, his ability to throw his off-speed stuff over is really good.

And health-wise thats the best Ive see the ball coming out of his hand. When he was warming up, and I havent been here for his sides or his games or anything, Ive taped them while I was away. But seeing him warm up today was the best Ive seen the ball coming out of his hand. It was jumping out of his hand. Thats a good sign healthwise that hes got a little extra.

McClure was away from the team for the past few weeks, dealing with a personal issue. In that time, there had been talk about initiating a change to Matsuzakas pregame routine. The right-hander implemented that plan before his Tuesday outing.

When his arm was bothering him, he couldnt sit for very long after he warmed up and then go out and throw, McClure said. It would take a lot of pitches to warm up.

Then his arm would tighten up.

But now that he has no pain at all, now he can take more time after he warms up like he did tonight. And assistant pitching coach Randy Niemann really has helped him with that as far as suggesting, Letstry and finish your warm-ups earlier so you have some more time before you go out there since your arms not stiff anymore and give yourself a little bit of a breather.

And I think, even though he gave up a run in the first inning, I thought what he was trying to do looked different. So I think being able to sit a little longer, instead of being able to just come in, warm up, and then going right back out there for the first inning has helped.

McClure said it is a pregame routine Matsuzaka is likely to continue for the rest of his outings this season, and possibly beyond. Because the results were there.

I think when Bobby went out there and whatever he said to him, it worked, because you didnt see it after that, McClure said. The three-ball counts werent as blatant. And a lot of times thats confidence and trying to be too fine sometimes early in the count. You just dont have a lot of guys that are going to swing at the first pitch, especially first time through. It happens but it doesnt happen a lot. So get ahead.

Matsuzakas record remains at 0-2, as he lowered his ERA from 6.06 to 4.91. The Sox are 2-2 in his starts after losing the first two.

So where does his confidence stand?

I think it seems real good, McClure said. And I think a lot of thats health. I think he feels healthy for the first time in a little while. So thats huge. Its hard enough when youre 100-percent healthy and then trying to pitch. When youre hurt, its tough. So confidence knowing that you can let it go, seeing swings and misses, all those things, are all confidence builders.