ST. PETERSBURG-Daisuke Matsuzaka, for the first time all night, was unsure of himself. The Red Sox right-hander considered the question for about 30 seconds, looked at translator Masa Hoshino, and then flashed a kind of half-grin. Matsuzaka paused a bit longer, chuckled to himself, and finally admitted that he didn’t have an answer to the question that had just been asked at the press conference following the most dominating post-season outing of his fledgling major league career.
As statistical analysis has determined, and as those who cling to conventional baseball wisdom dispute, there is no such thing as a clutch hitter. However, the question of whether there is such a thing as a clutch pitcher hasn’t been given as much attention, and it clearly stumped Matsuzaka. “I’m not really sure myself,” Matsuzaka said.
Perhaps Matsuzaka couldn’t quantify it empirically, but there was much anecdotal evidence that he was a very clutch pitcher Friday night, when he combined with three relievers on a four-hitter and the Red Sox shut out the Rays 2-0 in Game One of the American League Championship Series at Tropicana Field. Matsuzaka allowed the four hits in seven-plus innings while walking four and striking out nine. He got into trouble both early and late, but extricated himself both times, continuing the two-season long trend of being at his best in the most difficult of situations since the Red Sox shelled out $103.1 million for him amidst incredible hype in the winter between the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
Matsuzaka walked the bases loaded in the first inning, but escaped when Cliff Floyd grounded out to second base. After the Red Sox eked out the game’s first run against the extremely effective James Shields in the fifth inning, the Rays threatened in the seventh with their first two hits of the game, singles by Carl Crawford and Floyd that put runners on the corners with nobody out. Matsuzaka played Houdini again, stranding those runners on first and third by retiring the next three batters, including Jason Bartlett on an inning-ending fielder’s choice. “It just turns out that I’ve been able to hold the runners with the bases loaded or in scoring position even when I’ve allowed runners on through walks,” Matsuzaka said. “I’m not making any big mental changes when I get runners in scoring position.”
However he does it, the numbers certainly bear out that Matsuzaka becomes much tougher when the degree of difficulty increases, as these splits show:
SITUATION 2008 CAREER None on .249/.339/.387 .225/.327/.324 Runners on .193/.302/.324 .208/.305/.346 RISP .164/.288/.288 .201/.311/.332 RISP, 2 outs .153/.291/.222 .170/.267/.245
Red Sox manager Terry Francona, with his impish sense of humor, tried to explain Matsuzaka’s success in sticky situations. “Maybe because he gives himself so much practice with all the runners he puts on,” Francona said before turning serious. “He throws all his pitches and he has so many, so hitters have to respect that. Even in tight situations, he doesn’t become a one-pitch pitcher. The hitters can’t sit on any one pitch.”
Matsuzaka has as wide an array of pitches as anyone; so many that one wonders if catcher Jason Varitek might need a third hand to put down the signs with Dick-K on the mound. Matsuzaka throws a fastball, a slider, a curveball, a forkball, and a changeup-and all from a variety of arm angles. While legend has it that he also has the gyroball in his arsenal, the Red Sox insist that the pitch is actually a two-seam fastball that cuts in on right-handed batters much more than the average sinker.
Matsuzaka has not been the dominant pitcher that so many expected him to be when he came from Japan, though he did compile an 18-3 record in the regular season this year. His 5.9 SNLVAR placed him fifth in the American League, a year after the 5.1 mark of his rookie season had him at 19th. He has succeeded largely due to his skill in the art of damage control, and Varitek has a succinct explanation as to why. “He gives himself a chance to compete on every pitch he throws,” Varitek said. “He never backs down and never gives in.”
That mentality is why Matsuzaka finds himself in a seemingly large number of jams, according to Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. “He will pitch around a guy if he feels he doesn’t have an advantage every time, unless he is in a situation where he has no choice but to pitch to the batter,” Farrell said. “He really has a good understanding of every situation and when he needs to avoid trouble. He walks more guys than you’d ideally like to see, but a lot of those walks are really ‘unintentional intentional’ walks, though they don’t go down on the stat sheet that way. He manages a game as well as any pitcher I’ve ever seen.”
The downside to Matsuzaka’s ability to manage the game is that he often runs up high pitch counts while bobbing and weaving his way into, out of, and around trouble. Despite some nearly superhuman feats of durability while pitching in Japan, Matsuzaka has completed only one of his 61 regular-season starts in the major leagues. He had also never lasted longer than 5
Matsuzaka got into the eighth Friday night before being pulled after Akinori Iwamura and B.J. Upton led off the inning with singles with the Red Sox leading 2-0. The Boston bullpen cleaned up that mess, as Hideki Okajima got Carlos Pena on a fly out to right field, and Justin Masterson induced Evan Longoria to hit into an inning-ending double play. Jonathan Papelbon then struck out two in a perfect ninth for the save. Matsuzaka needed 27 pitches to get through the harrowing first inning, 16 more to retire the Rays in order in the second, and 17 in the third when he worked around a two-out walk to Pena. He struck out Longoria to end the third to begin a string of 10 straight retired batters, throwing just 10 pitches in each of the middle three innings. “That was probably as efficient as we’ve seen him,” Farrell said. “Usually, you look up in the fifth inning and he’s already around 100 pitches. It was nice to see him have some quick innings and get deeper into the game.”
Time will tell if Matsuzaka ever learns to control his pitch counts, but he certainly turned in a strong performance on a night when it was needed, as Shields was also outstanding, allowing two runs and six hits in 7
“Daisuke pitched really well,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “He made a nice adjustment in the second inning. They got off the breaking ball and went a lot more with the fastball and he had command of it. It was really a well-pitched game on both sides. Our guys did a good job. It was a clean game. It was a good game. There was not a lot of hitting, but they just got the couple runs and we had some opportunities and were not able to take advantage of them.”
Then again, Matsuzaka has a way of keeping teams from cashing in on their chances. “Daisuke looked unbelievable,” Youkilis said. “It’s amazing. We always joke how he gets out of these innings. He’ll have the bases loaded, nobody out, or first and third, nobody out, and he gets out of the jams. We wish he wouldn’t put himself in those jams, but it’s amazing how he does it and that shows how great of a pitcher he is.”