LAKELAND, Fla. Theres often talk about the good and bad versions of Daisuke Matsuzaka each time he comes to the mound.
Matsuzaka had been Bad Dice-K all spring heading into Tuesday afternoons outing against the Detroit Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium, and there was little hope it was about to get any better. The Japanese hurler had an 11.41 ERA in his first three starts and had shown little command of his vast array of pitches as he prepared for a season thats tremendously important to his big league future.
The Tigers werent giving him any breaks either by plopping Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and former Sox catcher Victor Martinez into the middle of their lineup for Tuesday's game.
But none of that mattered in a 2-1, 10-inning win for the Sox over the Tigers. Matsuzaka was, in fact, Good Dice-K starting at the warmup session in the bullpen and he wound up pitching five shutout innings, allowing only two hits and one walk, with five strikeouts.
He just pounded the strike zone, threw all his pitches for strikes, said Terry Francona. We tell all of our pitchers that if they do it, good things will happen.
Jason Varitek couldfeel the power and electricity on his fastball, and consequently theSox righty didnt throw anything off-speed until the third inning. It was a performance that showed everyone just how good Matsuzaka can be when things are working.
"Everybody needs nuggets every once in awhile," said Varitek in one of his more Zen moments talking about one of his starters. "It was a good nugget for Matsuzaka today.
He was able to establish himself today," Varitek said. "Good mix. He started with location first and we were able to do different things off of that. He was good today.
Part of the intrigue behind Matsuzakas strong outing was the decision -- by Matsuzaka and new pitching coach Curt Young -- to tweak his routine between starts. Matsuzaka customarily combined his side throwing session and long toss regimen during the same day and both were vigorous, as is expected with the notoriously throw-happy Matsuzaka. Now he does his side session and long toss on separate days.
The Japanese righty indicated hed be sticking with the alteration that he and Young came up with this week.
Everyone associated with the Sox knows that if Matsuzaka can once again pitch the way he did during his first two seasons in Boston, then there is some truly scary potential for the starting staff.
If Matsuzaka can come out of camp healthy and be something close to the 18-3, 2.90 ERA hurler he was in 2008, then that takes a tremendous amount of pressure off fellow rotation members like Josh Beckett and John Lackey.
There are whispers Matsuzaka could be on the trade market, but its hard to believe there are many teams interested in the relatively high-maintenance pitcher adjusting to a new environment.
Instead the Sox and Matsuzaka are working to get back to what made the righty such an effective pitcher early in his career.
I was able to throw strikes with my breaking ball and behind in the count, said Matsuzaka, who began tinkering with the breaking stuff once his fastball was fully under command. When I saw the regular members of the Tigers in the lineup, I probably pitched a lot more closely to how I would pitch in the regular season. That was a good part of the game.
I was able to modify what was bad before in other starts and really bring it about into a positive way.
Francona said he was looking for some purpose out of Matsuzakas pitching prior to the game, and the Sox found that and then some. Matsuzaka also found some meaning in whats been a trying last week for him at spring training.
The Sox righty, along with Hideki Okajima, Junichi Tazawa and a fellow Japanese minor-leaguer in the Sox system, collected money for tsunami and earthquake relief funds prior to Monday nights game against the New York Yankees at City of Palms Park. Then the hurler went out and pitched against the Tigers with the thoughts and hopes of millions of his fellow countrymen on his mind.
"I'm always aware of what happened in Japan and I understand the fans are always watching me on the mound, so I would like to continue throwing better for people in Japan, as well as fans, said Matsuzaka through Sox interpreter Kenta Yamada.
With some pretty understandable motivation and his confidence firmly in place, the pieces are certainly in place for Good Dice-K to have a nice run to start the season in Boston.