Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Widespread intrigue surrounds Dice-K's return

Jon Lester takes everything about his pitching seriously, so one always has to raise an eyebrow when he smiles or laughs about anything that has to do with the Red Sox rotation.

That was his reaction, though, when a reporter asked him if he, like everyone else in Boston, was curious to see how Daisuke Matsuzaka would look on Tuesday.

"It would be big for us if Dice-K comes back and is Dice," Lester said. "He's looked good. I've seen some of his bullpens he's thrown, and he looks strong, looks good. ... It's a tough lineup: With the Angels, I think everyone in their lineup is hitting .300. Hopefully, he can come in and establish that he's back and he's healthy."

Lester might be optimistic -- but he's as in the dark about anyone about how Matsuzaka will fare in his first major-league start since mid-June. He looked OK in his final minor-league start, but there's only so much you can take from minor-league starts.

"It'll be really interesting to watch," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

Francona loves to pull out his "Hall of Fame thing": If a pitcher throws seven shutout innings in his first start, Red Sox fans will start designing his plaque for Cooperstown -- but if he gets shelled, they'll be ready to run him out of town.

Still, though, there's a lot riding on this start for Matsuzaka.

He was a different pitcher this season than he's been for the Red Sox in the past, but he's been a different pitcher for the Red Sox than he was in Japan.

"He kind of evolved the last couple of years and got away from the guy we signed -- for a few different reasons," Francona said with a surprising candor. "What we're hoping to do is see closer to the stuff we saw when we signed him. You might not see the exact same stuff -- I don't know if that's fair -- but closer to it."

The key for Matsuzaka, as it is for every pitcher, will be to command each of his pitches. Matsuzaka came to the United States with a reputation for throwing half a dozen or more pitches, but he's whittled his repertoire down to a fastball, a cutter, a changeup and a curveball. The issue for him earlier this season was that he couldn't distinguish any of his pitches from each other.

Below is a start from last September in which he tossed seven shutout innings against the Toronto Blue Jays:

Below is a start from early June in which he allowed five earned runs in five innings against the Texas Rangers:

The issue is pretty clear: Matsuzaka's fastball looked like his cutter, and his cutter looked like his breaking ball. When a pitcher can't distinguish his pitches, none of them are going to be very effective.

Combine that with the fact that he was pounding the strike zone the way coaches and fans alike have begged him to do, and it's not surprise he got hit hard.

(Here's his strike-zone chart from last September. Compare that to his strike-zone chart from June.)

If he can pound the strike zone with a variety of pitches that don't all look the same, he might just be successful.

That would mean a lot to the Red Sox -- and not just because they have a $103 million investment to justify.

They might lead the wild-card race by a growing margin, but there's nothing locked up that a bad week couldn't undo. If the Angels knock Matsuzaka out of Tuesday's game in the third inning and Paul Byrd follows that up with a stinker on Wednesday, the Red Sox could find themselves reeling -- and with a depleted bullpen -- with no days off until the end of the season.

Then again, with Michael Bowden and Junichi Tazawa still available, one bad start from Matsuzaka doesn't have to throw the Red Sox into a tailspin.

"I don't know that it necessarily needs to derail us," Francona said. "We're at the point in the season where we have other options. We have backups. We don't have to do something we're not comfortable with.

"It is unique. I understand that. But I don't think it has to get in the way of what we're doing."

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