Archive for Monday, October 15, 2007

Dice-K relaxed going into Red Sox-Indians Game 3

October 15, 2007

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— A 20-win season. A microscopic earned-run average. Maybe even a gyroball or two.

Daisuke Matsuzaka came to Boston with a $52 million contract - after the Red Sox agreed to pay $51.11 million just to negotiate with him - and a load of unrealistic expectations.

Now there's just one that his teammates want him to meet: a victory over the Cleveland Indians tonight.

If he gets that, Boston will have a 2-1 edge in the best-of-seven AL championship series, and Dice-K can add another line to his resume - a playoff victory.

He fell short in his postseason debut when he lasted 42â3 innings in Game 2 of Boston's three-game sweep of the AL division series against the Los Angeles Angels. He left trailing 3-2, but the Red Sox won 6-3 on Manny Ramirez's three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.

"I didn't go into the game particularly conscious of the fact that it was a postseason game," Matsuzaka said through a translator Sunday, "and I approached it the same way I did my regular-season starts. But I also know that I made mistakes in that previous start in the postseason, and I hope to learn from them."

He'll face Jake Westbrook, and the Red Sox hope he can go at least six innings since they used all seven of their relievers in the Indians' 13-6 victory in 11 innings of Game 2 that ended early Sunday morning in Boston, although they got to rest on Sunday's travel day.

The expectations may have grown after his major-league debut - a 10-strikeout, six-hit masterpiece at Kansas City. He worked seven innings in Boston's 4-1 victory.

"Given all the expectations that have surrounded me, I've felt happy about those expectations," he said after that victory. "But, at the same time, feeling like perhaps they were a little bit extreme."

Of course, they were.

But he created them himself by throwing a no-hitter to win Japan's national high school tournament in 1998, playing on two Olympic teams and winning the MVP award in the World Baseball Classic in March 2006.

But this year Matsuzaka had to adjust to a different culture, batters he'd never faced and a passionate Boston fandom.

Still, he started off strong. Then, burdened by one bad inning in many of his outings, he finished with a 15-12 record and with a 4.40 ERA that was more than twice the 2.13 he posted in the last of his eight seasons with the Seibu Lions in 2006. But he had 201 strikeouts in 204 innings.

As for the gyroball, the public fascination with the mysterious, if mythical, pitch faded early in the season, and he never did say if he used it this year.

But when Matsuzaka is on, he has plenty of pitches working, and he said he's relaxed going into Game 3.

"He mixes all of his pitches for strikes at any count," Cleveland's Ryan Garko said. "He's got a lot of confidence in throwing two or three or four different pitches during an at-bat at any point, and he works at both sides of the plate."

Against the Indians in Boston on May 30, Dice-K allowed six runs and a season-high 12 hits in 52â3 innings and the Red Sox lost 8-4.

"I didn't think everything was going to be great from the start," Matsuzaka said.

But on July 24 in his only game in Cleveland, he gave up four hits in seven scoreless innings. Boston won 1-0.

"He's got a lot more experience now," catcher Jason Varitek said. "I think he'll continue to learn as he continues to learn himself. Pitching in the American League, it's a constant learning process."

Matsuzaka had five days rest as part of a six-man rotation in Japan and will pitch today on nine days rest. In his 32 starts this year, he was 5-7 on four days rest and 10-5 with five or more.

"He had some bad starts but he also didn't have any run support," Varitek said. "That weight can't be put on one man's shoulders."

Before Friday night's ALCS opener, he pitched a simulated game against teammates. But manager Terry Francona said Matsuzaka's routine hasn't changed since the regular season.

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