Friday, June 19, 2009

Red Sox have luxury of skipping a Dice-K start

Terry Francona loves to tell reporters they're getting way ahead of him -- particularly when it comes to his pitching.

No one bothered, then, to ask Francona immediately after the game if Daisuke Matsuzaka would make his next scheduled start. The only question along those lines was more vague than that: What do you do from here?

"We've got an off-day Monday, and we'll certainly sit down," the Red Sox manager said. "We have the ability to be a little flexible in what we do going forward. Saying that, I don't know that it makes a lot of sense to do something beofre the off-day. We'll see where we line up after that."

Pitching John Farrell, asked specifically when Matsuzaka would make his next start. John Smoltz already is lined up to pitch on Thursday in Washington, the day Matsuzaka's next turn in the rotation comes up.

"Until that determination comes from within, we haven't announced a rotation beyond that," Farrell said.

Matsuzaka, though, wasn't vague.

"If I keep going like this, I have no right to be part of this rotation," he said through interpreter Masa Hoshino.

He's not kidding. He began the game with a fastball right over the heart of the plate that Nate McLouth hit into the Atlanta Braves' bullpen in right field. He then threw a fastball over the middle that Yunel Escobar ripped into left field for a single, and he followed that with a fastball down and in that Chipper Jones yanked into right field for a double.

(Give credit to the Braves for having the right game plan. Matsuzaka normally is a pitcher who nibbles around the strike zone, but he's made more of an effort in his last couple of starts to throw the ball over the plate with more consistency. The Braves adjusted accordingly and jumped all over him.)

After that, he decided he didn't want to throw the ball in the strike zone anymore -- and he threw eight straight balls to Brian McCann and Garret Anderson, forcing home a run.

Only an unbelievably lucky break saved him -- Casey Kotchman's rocket of a line drive hit Kevin Youkilis right in the glove and right in a spot where he could double up Anderson to end the inning with the Red Sox still in the game.

"It's just him executing his pitches," catcher Jason Varitek said. "Everyone's making a grand deal about something that he can do -- and he'll be able to do. If he's not, he's going to have those results."

Said Matsuzaka, "After I came out of the game, I checked myself on the video. What I saw was completely different from what I actually thought I was doing, so I was quite disappointed."

The Red Sox are going to have some decisions to make. Here are some of the options:

* Stick with Matsuzaka.
It's an option. As Francona and Farrell say every time they get the chance, Matsuzaka won more than 30 games in his first two big-league seasons. He had to have been doing something right.

"We have confidence in everybody," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "Everybody goes through tough times. You play so many games. He's had so many starts that he's going to have a bad start, but there's going to be more good starts than bad starts, I can guarantee you that. We're confident that he's going to bounce back and be fine."

* Send Matsuzaka to Triple-A.
Per his contract, Matsuzaka can't be sent to Pawtucket without his permission -- but the way he was talking on Friday night, he sounded like it might be a bigger blow to his pride to get shelled than it would be to get demoted.

It would give Daniel Bard a reprieve, anyway.

* Place Matsuzaka on the disabled list.
This is a popular suggestion, but it's not an easy one to pull off given that Matsuzaka is showing no sign of any kind of physical ailment. Heck, he's not even pretending like there's any kind of physical ailment.

"No structural issues," Farrell said. "No health issues. It's a matter of more consistent location."

It'd be a tough sell, given that the league already has started to talk about disabled-list shenanigans and teams using the disabled list to stash players who are ineffective rather than injured.

* Skip Matsuzaka's next start.
Don't rule it out. The Red Sox have six starting pitchers and already have slotted Smoltz into the schedule where Matsuzaka next is scheduled to pitch. The Red Sox easily could leave the two-time World Baseball Classic MVP on the active roster but skip his next start and give him until June 30 at Baltimore for him to work through his command issues and find some solutions.

Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield, Brad Penny and Jon Lester would follow Smoltz in order, on normal rest, and the Red Sox would have 10 days to figure out what's wrong with their $51 million man.

The only downside would be a shorthanded bullpen. Given that no one is being shipped out when Smoltz returns, the Red Sox will be operating with a shorthanded bullpen anyway -- and if they can't survive a three-game series with the Washington Nationals with six relievers, they're going to have bigger problems on their hands.

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