Saturday October 11th, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Daisuke Matsuzaka can go 3-0 on every batter and not allow a hit. He can walk the bases loaded and not allow a run. He tests the patience of teammates as well as opponents. When Matsuzaka is on the mound, the Red Sox fully expect a three-and-a-half hour game. They also fully expect a win.

Matsuzaka went 18-3 this season, the most maddening 18-3 in the history of pitching. He was never efficient, but almost always effective. He led the American League in walks and lasted eight innings only two times, an indictment of his control and his pitch counts. Matsuzaka started Game 1 of the American League Championship Series in trademark form, walking the bases loaded. He finished Game 1 in trademark form as well, with a 2-0 victory over the Rays.

"I don't know how he does it," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said. "But he does it."

Pitchers are taught from Little League on up that walks will come back to burn them, but in Matsuzaka's case, that is not necessarily the case. He seems to operate under the assumption that he can issue as many walks as he wants, so long as he does not give up hits, or at least run-scoring hits. On Friday night, Matsuzaka took a no-hitter into the seventh inning at Tropicana Field, before allowing back-to-back singles to Carl Crawford and Cliff Floyd. The Rays had runners at first and third with no out. But Matsuzaka, who is most comfortable with his head in a noose, slipped out of it once again.

"He's done it all year," Red Sox first baseman Sean Casey said. "Guys die on base."

This year, Matsuzaka has loaded the bases 15 times and hitters are 0-for-15 against him in those situations. It is far easier to get runners on against Matsuzaka than to get them in. The Red Sox attribute his resilience to all the different pitches at his disposal. Matsuzaka has three fastballs -- a cutter, a two-seamer and a straight fastball -- to go along with a slider and a change-up. Matsuzaka's explanation for all those stranded runners? "I'm not really sure," he said.

The Rays spent the past six months warding off the Red Sox so they could win the American League East and have home-field advantage in this series. No one can take the division title away from them, but home field is gone after one game. The Rays must beat Red Sox starting pitcher Josh Beckett in Game 2 on Saturday or else go to Fenway Park down 0-2, a lethal proposition.

The Rays won the east this season by consistently getting the big hit at the right moment. But when that moment arrived Friday, and the Rays put runners at first and second with no out in the eighth inning, Carlos Pena swung at a 3-0 pitch and flied weakly to right field. Then Evan Longoria grounded into a double play. All the juice was sucked out of Tropicana Field.

Playoff experience may be wildly overrated, but the Red Sox have it and the Rays do not. Sitting on the Red Sox bench, Ortiz said he studied the Rays' players and could see the anxiety across their faces. The confidence he noticed in the regular season, the belief that the game would always swing their way no matter what, had disappeared. "It wasn't there tonight," Ortiz said. "I didn't really see that. You can't blame them. It's a lot of pressure."

The Rays handled it for the most part. But with two runners on base in the eighth inning, trailing by a run, Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis hit a sinking line drive to left field. Crawford went into a half-slide, half-dive, and the ball kicked off his glove for a run-scoring double. It was not an easy play, by any means, but it was the kind that the Rays usually make.

Sitting in the Rays' dugout, starting pitcher James Shields buried his face in a towel. Shields went seven-and-one-third innings, gave up two runs and left with an excruciating loss. Matsuzaka, meanwhile, tiptoed out of another burning building. There was little reason to expect a standout performance Friday. He had struggled against the Rays recently, lasting only five innings in three straight meetings with them, and he had wilted in last year's ALCS, giving up six runs in nine-and-two-thirds innings against the Indians.

But Matsuzaka is a master of the unexpected, the rare pitcher who seems to relish chaos and uncertainty. Perhaps he needs a little danger. Put him on the road, with a few runners on base and a 3-0 count, and he makes like a Japanese MacGyver. "No matter how hysterical the atmosphere," Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said, "he remains calm."

Or as Casey put it: "Bases loaded, we're in the driver's seat."

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