Daisuke Matsuzaka likely wasn’t pitching for his rotation spot on Monday. But he pitched as if he was, with dazzling results.
Matsuzaka’s dominant outing against the Blue Jays – seven shutout innings in which he allowed just one hit, walked one and struck out three on a tidy 89 pitches in a 9-1 Red Sox victory (recap) – will do little to dispel the notion that he is wildly inconsistent. If anything, he further reinforced the point.
How else to describe a pitcher who had logged seven combined innings while allowing 10 earned runs in his first two starts before matching that innings log without allowing a single run on Monday? How to characterize a pitcher who had averaged nearly three base runners per inning in his first two starts of the year, but then who allowed just two Blue Jays to reach base during the entirety of Monday’s outing?
So, yes. Matsuzaka does not, and likely never will, represent a pitcher for whom the outcome can be predictable. That said, he also offered a meaningful reminder on Monday that he is a pitcher capable of completely shutting down an opposing lineup.
The Sox felt that Matsuzaka’s prior start had been little short of disastrous. He allowed seven runs in just two innings of work against the Rays, leaving pitch after pitch over the middle of the plate. Public cries for his demotion from the rotation were plentiful, and even though the Sox were not part of that din, apparently, the blowback from that start got back to Matsuzaka, who believed that he was pitching for his future as a Sox starter.
“If I did pitch badly,” Matsuzaka said through his interpreter, “I thought there wouldn’t be [a] next chance.”
Perhaps motivated by the perception of job insecurity, Matsuzaka justified the Sox’ faith in his ability to bounce back. He needed just 89 pitches to steamroll the Blue Jays, retiring the last 16 batters he faced while proving shockingly economical.
From the third inning through the seventh, here were his pitch counts by inning (perhaps aided by a Blue Jays team that appeared more than ready to leave town): 11, 11, 10, 5, 11.
Matsuzaka struck out just three, but elicited nine swings and misses on a day when he featured a 90-93 mph fastball, a cutter that was sharp early and a slider that appeared later in the game.
In contrast to his previous start against the Rays, when he got shelled for seven runs in just two innings, Matsuzaka largely stayed away from the middle of the plate, working the corners and managing to work at the top or bottom of the strike zone.
“His location was better,” said catcher Jason Varitek. “Most importantly, he stayed down when we wanted him down and stayed up when we wanted him up.”
Now, as much as Monday's outing played into the idea that Matsuzaka is mysterious and unpredictable, it also reinforced the basis of the Sox’ faith in the pitcher. For even though the results were dramatically different than in his first two outings of the season, the quality of the pitcher’s stuff was familiar – both from his impressive spring training outings, and even from his first regular season outings in which the pitcher was undone by his location.
As much as he can frustrate the Sox, the team has faith in the arsenal of pitches featured by the right-hander. It’s a matter of execution.
“That’s the thing about Daisuke, I think he can create early contact and when he needs strikeouts, he can strike people out,” said pitching coach Curt Young. “I think he had pretty decent stuff the other night, just in the middle of the plate. I thought he brought that same stuff tonight, that same aggressive approach, not going to get behind in the count.
"[He] really looked pretty familiar, pretty similar to the games he had in spring training is how it looked. A low pitch count, lot of strikes, and a lot of good action out of them.”
For Matsuzaka, the head-scratching phenomenon is that his outings can feature such extreme outcomes, even in back-to-back starts. He can get lit up in one outing, and then come back and dominate in the next, as was the case during his two starts on the homestand.
But when chaos does swirl around the pitcher, it is worth remembering that when he is on, he can do as much to shut down an opposing lineup as any of his teammates. Since he came to the Sox in 2007, Matsuzaka has 14 outings in which he’s thrown at least six shutout innings. That is second on the club in that time behind only Jon Lester.
So, the next time that he has a rough outing, it is worth remembering that he is a pitcher capable of rebounding to be highly effective. It just remains something of a mystery when or how often he can perform at that level.
Here are nine other lessons from the end of a homestand that the Sox wrapped up with a 5-4 record:
A STAR(TER) IS BORN
It only seemed like Jed Lowrie was amidst the greatest run of all time.
Lowrie laid claim to an everyday job – at least for now – over the course of a seven-game homestand that sandwiched his 27th birthday. The switch-hitting shortstop was nothing short of a force, hitting .625 (15-for-24) with a .640 OBP, .958 slugging mark and 1.598 OPS while playing seven games at home. Among players with at least 25 plate appearances this year, he now leads the majors with a ridiculous .516 average, while ranking among the top handful of players in OBP (.545), slugging (.774) and OPS (1.320).
The Sox hope to ride Lowrie’s magical streak for as long as possible, even as they acknowledge that this sort of solar flare of a hot stretch is impossible to sustain forever.
“There is no chance that Jed will hit .500 all year. I would love to see it. But if we’re going to go to the law of averages, there’s a good chance that he might not hit .400, either,” chuckled Kevin Youkilis. “I would love for him to do it, but there’s a good chance that he’s not.”
It just doesn’t look or feel that way right now. On Monday, Lowrie went 4-for-5, delivering a huge, bases-loaded, two-out single in the bottom of the first to give the Sox an early 2-0 lead, and then adding on a couple more singles and a two-run homer.
Lowrie suggested that he has enjoyed similar runs of success in the past, noting that he hit .400 (actually, .399) while leading the Pac-10 in batting average as a sophomore at Stanford and having hit .300 or better at different points in his minor league career. That said, he is not getting carried away by the sight of lugging a batting average of better than .500 to the plate in mid-April.
“Who cares? It’s April 18, we’ve got a long season,” Lowrie said of his ridiculous stats. “I’m just going to continue to keep my head down and keep grinding.”
While it is unclear how long he will be able to sustain this run, what Lowrie has ensured – at least in the short term – is greater opportunity for himself. He started the last three games of the homestand, and the switch-hitter will continue to see his name in the lineup as long as he keeps producing outstanding at-bats.
THE SOX LINEUP IS CONTINUING TO EVOLVE
It had to be done. Carl Crawford’s struggles in eight games as the leadoff hitter had become too profound. Manager Terry Francona had to make a move to nudge him down in the batting order.
“We’re going to like Carl wherever he hits, when he gets hot. Right now, he’s having a tough time,” explained Francona before the game. “When you’re leading off, that gets a little bit magnified. That’s just the way it is. That should help him, and if he doesn’t get hits today, it lessens the burden of not getting hits.”
The need to move Crawford down in the lineup, in turn, forced the Sox to unveil their 13th lineup in 15 games. Monday’s most novel wrinkle came at the top: J.D. Drew was inserted in the leadoff spot, based on his ability to work deep counts (he entered the day having averaged 4.01 pitches per plate appearance from the leadoff spot in his career) and his tremendous success against Jays starter Ricky Romero.
Drew rewarded the strategy immediately, delivering a triple to open the game (the first time the Sox had led off a game with a triple since Drew accomplished the feat in another temporary stint as the leadoff man in 2009) and going 2-for-4 with a walk, reaching base in all three plate appearances against Romero. Drew now is hitting .500 (11-for-22) with a .607 OBP in his career against the Jays lefty.
As good as Drew’s day was, the Sox aren’t about to anoint him their new leadoff hitter – especially as they prepare to face a pair of tough lefties in Oakland (Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez).
“It's probably not a lineup we're going to use a lot,” said Francona, “but today it looked like it made a lot of sense.”
ONE MORE THOUGHT ON MATSUZAKA
One footnote to the wildly disparate performances by Matsuzaka during the homestand: Jarrod Saltalamacchia was Matsuzaka’s catcher against the Rays, while Varitek was behind the plate against the Blue Jays. Since the start of the 2010 season, Matsuzaka has a 3.50 ERA in 10 starts working with Varitek, while in 19 starts with anyone else behind the dish, he has a 5.60 ERA.
That is not a commentary on Saltalamacchia’s defensive abilities as much as it is an apparent signal of the pitcher’s apparent comfort level working with Varitek. Both Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett have years of accumulated years of trust in the Sox captain.
That, in turn, could create some interesting dilemmas for the Sox. The team wants Saltalamacchia to be its primary catcher, and to have him work with the entire staff. Varitek, moreover, has suffered poor early-season offensive results, going just 1-for-16 (.063) with no extra-base hits or RBI.
Still, it is difficult to deny the pattern of two pitchers who seem to benefit from having a very familiar face behind the plate. How that plays out with forthcoming Sox lineups remains to be seen.
FOR CARL CRAWFORD, IT WAS A STARTING POINT
Maybe it was a function of his lower spot in the batting order, maybe it wasn’t. Regardless, Crawford had a day that he needed before leaving Fenway Park.
The left fielder concluded a wretched homestand (.108 average, .132 OBP, .294 OPS) with a pair of strong plate appearances, driving a ball to the warning track in left center and then jolting a fastball off the Green Monster for his first hit as a member of the Sox off of Fenway Park’s most renowned landmark. The double permitted Crawford a chance to board the team flight to Oakland with a sense of relief.
“It’s always better to go on a trip with some hits than no hits,” said Crawford. “That’ll definitely make the six hours a little easier to do that.”
THE SOX REDISCOVERED THEIR CLEANUP HITTER
It was a bizarre homestand for Kevin Youkilis, who put the ball in play in fewer than half of his plate appearances. He stepped into the batter’s box 40 times, taking 10 walks, getting hit by two pitches and striking out nine times.
Yet when he made contact, he showed a sound approach, driving the ball wherever it was pitched, whether pulling it or delivering opposite-field extra-base hits. That, Youkilis said after the game, was an indication of good at-bats, insofar as he was making solid contact wherever the ball was thrown.
Youkilis went 2-for-5 on Monday, crushing a pair of balls to right and right-center. Indeed, after entering the day with just four career homers to the opposite field at Fenway Park (and none since 2009), he almost had two longballs to the big part of the park.
In his second plate appearance, he scorched a ball to the Red Sox bullpen. But amazingly, it hit off the top of the low fence and bounced back onto the warning track for a double. Then, in his fourth at-bat, he unloaded on a pitch and sailed it into the Blue Jays bullpen for his second homer of the homestand.
“When guys are driving the ball, hitting the ball the other way with authority, something's going right,” said Francona. “They have to have better balance. You can't hit balls like that and be out front or be behind. That's a really good sign.”
After hitting just .105 with a .502 OPS on the Sox’ season-opening six-game road trip, Youkilis concluded the nine-game homestand with a .286/.500/.607/1.107 line. For the year, he now has an odd line of a .213 average but with a .422 OBP and .869 OPS.
THE NO. 3 HITTER, ON THE OTHER HAND, STILL AWAITS HIS FIRST SIGNATURE FENWAY MOMENT
Adrian Gonzalez’ swing is described as being tailor-made for Fenway Park. He has a rare ability to stay back on the ball and to drive it effortlessly to the opposite field, an approach that can prove incredibly rewarding for a left-handed hitter in the Red Sox’ home.
But on his first homestand, Gonzalez’ most memorable moment came with the announcement of the seven-year, $154 million contract extension he signed to remain with the Sox through the 2018 season. On the field, he still awaits his first signature moment.
Gonzalez hit .235 with a .366 OBP and .719 OPS during his first homestand. He did loft a high fly ball into the triangle on Monday, which Blue Jays center fielder Corey Patterson alligator-armed into a ground-rule double. But overall, the Jays limited the damage done by Gonzalez.
Most notably, starter Ricky Romero – on a day when he otherwise struggled badly – was able to throw 92-93 mph fastballs past Gonzalez, striking him out three times on the day.
MARCO SCUTARO UNDERSTANDS THE SITUATION
No player likes to be pushed aside by someone who is performing at a higher level. Marco Scutaro is no different. He fought for years to become an everyday player in the majors, becoming one of the first shortstops ever to become a regular at the position at the age of 32 or later.
And so it could not have been an easy thing to see that hard-earned job start to slip from his grasp. But ultimately, Francona acknowledged that it was impossible not to play Lowrie everyday, at least as long as he continues his rampage through opposing pitching staffs.
Scutaro gets it. He is hitting .188 with a .547 OPS. He did deliver a significant hit that played a key role in one Red Sox victory during the homestand – a bases-loaded double to lock down a series win against the Yankees – but he hasn’t been an impact contributor. Lowrie has. And so, Scutaro said, no one needed to explain the changed distribution of playing time.
“You don’t have to [talk to the manager] to understand what’s going on,” said Scutaro. “It’s all about winning here. … I’m fine. It’s special being on a winning team. Being on a losing team is no fun at all. Right now, [manager Terry Francona] is just trying to put the best guys out there to win games.”
THE SOX ARE STILL SEARCHING FOR THEIR LEFT-HANDED RELIEF OPTION
In spring training, the Sox raved about the relief depth that they had accumulated. At least among their left-handed options, however, they remain amidst a period of trial and error.
For the second time in the young season, the Sox swapped out one left-hander for another. Felix Doubront, who had replaced Dennys Reyes at the start of the homestand, was sent back to the minors after Sunday’s game, when he walked both left-handed hitters he faced. In Doubront’s place, on Monday morning, the Sox recalled Hideki Okajima, whom they hope will be able to give them an effective, strike-throwing option from the left side.
“The thinking was, when we called Doubront back up, we fully well knew he wasn’t in midseason form. Saying that, we love this kid,” Francona said of a 23-year-old who missed much of spring training with elbow stiffness. “[But] we’re carrying one lefty. [Doubront's] not a guy we want to get up and down a lot. That’s not going to work. The other side of that is that we can go get him stretched out as a starter, obviously for some depth reasons. So, Oki was throwing the ball really well in Triple-A, so it seemed like the logical move to make.”
Okajima tossed 5 2/3 shutout innings in five appearances in Pawtucket, striking out five and walking none. Should Okajima not prove the solution, the Sox still have depth in the form of Rich Hill, who has struck out 11 and walked two while tossing 8 2/3 shutout innings in Pawtucket.
Doubront, meanwhile, will be stretched out to give the Sox a rotation insurance option. With both Tim Wakefield and Alfredo Aceves in the bullpen at the major league level, the Sox ran the risk of getting caught without a viable depth option for the rotation. By sending Doubront down to pitch more extended innings, they will help to maximize their insurance options.
AND OH, BY THE WAY, THIS WAS PROGRESS
The Sox arrived at Fenway Park on April 8, toting a miserable 0-6 record. In going 5-4 during their first stretch at home, the team started to show glimpses of what is expected to be a very talented group. The final three games, in which the Sox outscored the Jays, 21-3, were particularly impressive.
Over much of the first two weeks of the season, the Sox lamented that their offense and pitching did not appear aligned. They would endure horrific starts on days when they would produce a handful of runs, or no offense on the rare occasions when they received solid starting pitching.
But Jon Lester and Josh Beckett both pitched brilliantly during the homestand to anchor the Sox, and with Matsuzaka backing up that duo’s efforts of Saturday and Sunday, the Sox claimed their first three-game winning streak of the year.
“[The offense and pitching] matched up [Monday],” said Varitek. “But it started with a quality start. The offense still isn’t on all cylinders. People are still getting those at-bats, getting through some at-bats. You need quality starts. That set the tone, and Jed drove in four runs, four of the first five runs or whatever. That ended up being huge. But if you don’t have a quality start, you’re digging from a hole.”
Now, the Sox will hope that John Lackey can help to sustain that budding momentum as the team heads to the West Coast. As the Sox left Fenway Park, they were armed with a sense of optimism about the direction in which they were heading.
“We’re playing better,” said Crawford. “We’re still scuffling here and there, but it seems like the team is starting to heat up a little bit, and hopefully we can take that out west and play well and come back and win a few series out there.”