Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dice-K's Tuesday start as much about next year as this year

Daisuke Matsuzaka will make a start for the Red Sox on Tuesday, his first major-league appearance since a terrible start against the Braves in mid-June landed him on the disabled list for the second time this season.

All his focus now is on that start. When a reporter asked if he had any aspirations of pitching in the playoffs, the third-year righty brushed it aside.

"I don't think it's really necessary to think that far ahead right now," Matsuzaka said through a team translator. "I'd like to focus everything I have on my upcoming start."

The Red Sox, though, can't take that mentality. In some ways, anything they can get from Matsuzaka this season is a bonus. The goal all along has been to make sure the two-time World Baseball Classic MVP is pitching at full strength in the final three years of his contract.

This season might be all but a lost season for Matsuzaka -- but next season, in a way, starts right now.

"Short-term, we're hoping it will be really beneficial," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Long-term, it will be tremendous. Regardless of how he pitches Tuesday, long-term, this is something that needed to be done."

Here's the translation: There's still a chance Matsuzaka could flop on Tuesday. There's still a chance that one bad start might be enough to prevent the Red Sox, neck and neck with the Rangers, from reaching the postseason.

There's more to it than that, though.

Even a bad start would bring positives with it. Even a bad start would mean Matsuzaka and the Red Sox would have taken a huge step forward together in completing a long and occasionally friction-filled rehabilitation process. Simply working his way back to the major leagues is a victory for a pitcher who didn't seem to be on board with the team's program both over the winter and earlier this season.

Since that time, though, Matsuzaka has done everything he can do to pitch like his old self in his return. That hasn't gone unnoticed by those who sign his hefty paychecks.

"I know that it took me some time to get here," he said, "but I also feel I was able to use that time to get prepared really well. I just hope I can apply all those things I was preparing for in my start."

Said Francona, "He's done everything we've asked him to do -- and probably a little bit more."

That's why the Red Sox see Tuesday's start as more of a win-win situation than others might. If Matsuzaka looks once again like a No. 2 or No. 3 starter, that could go a long way toward assuring the Red Sox a playoff spot.

If he looks once again like the disaster of April and May, well, he'll still have an entire winter to get in shape and work on his pitches and resurrect his major-league career.

"There's a lot more to be gained than to lose," Francona said. "If he pitches bad, sure, that wouldn't help our short-term goals. But if he can pitch good -- or show that he has some left this season -- it can really help us."

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