Tuesday May 25th, 2010

The Red Sox spent $150.5 million in a four-month window on pitchers John Lackey and Josh Beckett, and Jon Lester is one of only two left-handers in baseball (CC Sabathia is the other) to win 15 games and throw 200 innings each of the previous two seasons. But if Boston is going to make a run in the AL East, it's going to begin with its starting pitching, and the key just might be Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Matsuzaka? The guy who is 7-7 over the past two seasons and has frustrated Boston with his lack of durability and efficiency? Well, not exactly that same Matsuzaka. Instead, the guy who showed up to pitch against the Phillies Saturday night was the guy the Red Sox thought they were getting when they invested $103 million in him to bring him over from Japan before the 2007 season. Matsuzaka came within four outs of throwing a no-hitter. More importantly, he touched 95 mph, pitched consistently at 93 mph, and threw 75 fastballs, including cutters and two-seamers, among his 112 pitches.

When I asked Boston DH David Ortiz if that was the best he has seen Matsuzaka, he said, "Yeah. Oh, yeah. That was how he threw when he first got here."

Said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, "He's obviously been successful before, but now he has a chance to give us a huge boost, a big shot in the arm."

The idea of Matsuzaka pitching like an ace -- going deep into games, challenging hitters with mid-90s velocity -- disappeared over three seasons as Matsuzka devolved into a breaking ball pitcher who was unwilling or unable to attack hitters. He became a chronic nibbler. Many theories bubbled up about how the erstwhile Japanese ace turned into Steve Trachsel: the five-day pitching rotations in the majors, the deeper, more powerful lineups, the six-month MLB season (or seven, counting the 2007 World Series run in his first season in the U.S.), the lack of proper conditioning for the MLB grind and even the World Baseball Classic.

With less-than-gentle prodding from the Red Sox, Matsuzaka committed to a rigorous offseason training regimen in Arizona. The Red Sox didn't see much payoff in spring training, partly because of minor injuries to Matsuzaka that put him behind schedule. But in his five starts since the season began, most especially the one in Philadelphia, Matsuzaka is showing the kind of arm strength and the willingness to use his fastball in the strike zone that he hasn't exhibited in four years. The result is that the Red Sox have a completely different pitcher -- a guy written off as a back-end starter who has rediscovered his ace stuff.

"He doesn't have to work and to overcompensate to generate velocity now," Farrell said. "He's pitching much more freely, knowing he has the ability to reach back when he needs to. You can see it not just in his fastball. You can see it in his body language, his demeanor, his pace of game. He's attacking hitters instead of trying to finesse them."

Matsuzaka had an interesting way of describing this rediscovered way of pitching. It came in response to a Japanese reporter's question about his "mental state and physical state finally coming into balance."

In his reply Matsuzaka, through a translator, said, "I'm able to pitch like I imagine."

Matsuzaka had gone 21 consecutive starts since Aug. 29, 2008 without throwing eight innings until his game in Philadelphia on Saturday. The classic Matsuzaka start had become a five-inning, 105-pitch ugly bit of tedium with too many walks and too many off-speed pitches. But the return of his fastball has allowed him to pitch more aggressively. On May 11 against Toronto, for instance, he did not walk a batter while throwing seven innings -- only the third time in his career he had done so and the first time in three years. His WHIP (1.281) is the lowest rate of his career.

"He's got a huge [velocity] gap now between his fastball and his off-speed stuff," Ortiz said, "and that's why you saw the Phillies taking some bad swings against him. They looked confused at times. That's all because now he's got 95 [mph] plus that hammer [breaking ball]."

Even after the gem by Matsuzaka Saturday, the Red Sox had thrown fewer quality starts than every AL team except the Indians and Tigers. Beckett is on the DL with a back strain and a 7.29 ERA. Lackey has a 5.07 ERA and career worst rates of walks, strikeouts and WHIP. But the Red Sox look like they've turned a corner in the last week. Over their past seven games, the Red Sox are 6-1 with a staff ERA of 2.18.

The emergence of a Matsuzaka with great arm strength is perhaps the most impactful sign of the turnaround.

Now Matsuzaka has to show that he can maintain this kind of power pitching, beginning with his start Thursday against Kansas City (with no extra rest). He has been able to throw seven innings in back-to-back starts only once in his past 54 starts. He has been much better in his major league career when the Red Sox can give him extra rest (3.89 ERA) than when he has to throw on the fifth day (4.42 ERA). So we'll have to wait to see if Matsuzka really can hold his stuff and the look of an ace over 30 starts -- or say, even a month or two. For the Red Sox, though, the idea that Matsuzaka is even in that position again makes for a very powerful statement.

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