Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Matsuzaka attacks Vlad -- and wins

All the work Daisuke Matsuzaka had done through five innings threatened to unravel around him in the sixth.

The righty had walked Chone Figgins twice but otherwise had silenced a potent Angels lineup. Until Kendry Morales ripped a single to right field to lead off the fifth inning, Matsuzaka was on his way to what might have been the most unlikely no-hitter in Red Sox history. Erick Aybar followed with a single into the right-field corner to send Morales to third -- and Aybar promptly stole second base to give the Angels two runners in scoring position with one out.

Fortunately for Matsuzaka, Los Angeles catcher Jeff Mathis was on deck -- and Mathis was completely overmatched. It took only three pitches for Matsuzaka to set Mathis down swinging for the second time in two at-bats. Chone Figgins then waved at a fastball on the outside corner, and Matsuzaka was out of the jam.

"In that situation, I resigned myself to maybe having one run score," he said. "But I also knew that the other pitcher was pitching very well, and I really didn't want to let in any runs. I got the ideal result that I wanted, so I was very glad about that.

"Both pitches were fastballs. I think I only got strikeouts with fastballs."

The sixth inning, though, was a different story. Matsuzaka already had seen his velocity start to dip from his adrenaline-fueled first inning, as Abreu made so vividly clear, and there's not much that Guerrero has in common with Mathis other than the logo on his uniform.

Guerrero also is just the type of hitter who gives Matsuzaka fits. The righty from Japan is a well-known nibbler, pounding the strike zone early in the count and trying to induce swings and misses out of the zone later in the count. Guerrero, however, doesn't adhere to the traditional understanding of the strike zone. A pitch off the plate in any direction is just as likely to get hit hard as a pitch right down the middle.

(Guerrero entered the game with two hits in three at-bats off Matsuzaka in his career, though a sample size that small must be taken with a baseball-sized grain of salt.)

Matsuzaka first threw a 91-mile-an-hour fastball at the letters.

Guerrero, of course, swung at it, and he fouled it off.

Matsuzaka came back with a curveball off the plate away.

Guerrero, of course, swung at it, and he fould it off.

Matsuzaka then tried a fastball up at the eyes, the type of fastball at which Guerrero has been known to swing. This time, though, he laid off.

This was the type of situation in which Matsuzaka has been known to run into trouble. He'd started Guerrero with two strikes in the first inning, both foul balls, only to miss with three straight pitches and give control of the at-bat right back to the hitter. Only because the free-swinging Guerrero reached out of the strike zone did he escape that situation.

Guerrero wasn't going to make that mistake twice.

Still, though, Matsuzaka couldn't exactly groove anything. Guerrero might be enduring something of a down season -- he's likely to fall short of 20 home runs for the first time since 1997 -- but he's still as dangerous as they come with a misplaced two-strike pitch.

Matsuzaka didn't reach back for something extra. He didn't crank his fastball up to 94 or 95 miles an hour. He left his delivery do what it does -- and he painted the outside corner with a 91-mile-an-hour fastball. Guerrero could only stand and watch.

The Dice-K of earlier this season would have tried to put a little more oomph on a pitch like that and missed way outside. The Dice-K of right now, the humbled Dice-K who spent the last two months working his way back up the minor-league ladder, the Dice-K the Red Sox would love to see as their No. 4 starter in the playoffs? That Dice-K made a perfect pitch.

"The fastball he threw to Guerrero, down and away, in a key spot," pitching coach John Farrell said, "was as much indicative of him repeating his delivery as any pitch during the course of the night."

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