Daisuke Matsuzaka’s first two outings of the year were so poor that his catcher – a man who is described as having near-photographic recall of pitches – couldn’t even remember them.
“Was there only one (start), or was there two? I can’t even remember,” said Jason Varitek.
Answer: there were two, and they were terrible. Matsuzaka was placed on the disabled list following a one-inning, five-run yield against the A’s on April 14. The Red Sox concluded immediately after that outing he needed to be shut down to build strength in a weak shoulder.
In those first two starts, Matsuzaka’s fastball registered anywhere from 86-90 mph, peaking at 91 on just a couple of occasions. The pitch was flat, and came with a “hit me” tag for opposing hitters. Matsuzaka did not get a single swing-and-miss on his fastball in those two outings.
The starter’s return to the hill on Friday, despite a 5-3 loss to the Mets, represented a “night and day” departure from what the pitcher featured at the beginning of the year, Varitek affirmed. Matsuzaka’s fastball was not merely good but powerful, jumping through the strike zone at 91-94 mph.
“Dice was strong. That was the encouraging thing,” said Varitek. “The ball came out of his hand with some power through the zone.”
Matsuzaka punched out Daniel Murphy, the first batter of the game, on a 93 mph fastball in the top of the first. That turned out to be his only swing-and-miss on a fastball over his five innings.
Still, the Sox were extremely pleased with an outing that, but for a botched double-play ball and a couple of weak singles, could have positioned Matsuzaka for a win against Mets ace Johan Santana. Matsuzaka showed a strong cutter and slider, and also effectively added some changeups to his outing.
He gave up just five hits and one walk in his five innings, and he was aggressive in the strike zone, pouring in first strikes to 16 of the 22 batters he faced.
“I think that my pitches today were the best of all my recent starts, including my rehab starts,” said Matsuzaka. “I felt that my fastball and my breaking ball were both good today.”
“(The outing) was encouraging,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “That doesn’t give you a win, but long term, it looks good.”
Here are five other things we learned on a busy Friday at Fenway.
THE SOX ARE EAGER FOR JED LOWRIE’S RETURN
No one came to the defense of the defense of Julio Lugo. That is because, arguably, one play cost the Red Sox the game.
The Mets had pushed ahead, 2-1, in the top of the fourth inning. New York was threatening, with runners on first and second. But facing Jeremy Reed (a player whom the Sox once considered acquiring to replace Johnny Damon), Matsuzaka got the ideal outcome: a grounder to second.
“The moment the ball was hit,” said Matsuzaka, “I thought it would be a double play ball.”
First, a couple disclaimers:
A) Matsuzaka’s powers of observation have to be taken with at least a small grain of salt. After all, he thought that a bomb that Gary Sheffield hit against him, which scraped one of the advertising signs behind the Monster Seats, “was a (routine) fly to left field even here at Fenway.”
B) Lugo’s defense will forever be subject to incredible scrutiny. Anything that even might be a mistake in the field by the shortstop is treated with moral outrage by New Englanders, as if the 39 errors he’s committed in 243 games at short for the Red Sox were a felonious act.
C) There is at least a chance that a double-play could not have been turned on the play. Reed is extremely fast, and has grounded into just 23 double plays in 1,094 career plate appearances.
All of that said … Lugo was terrible trying to serve as the pivot on the play. Dustin Pedroia fielded the ball and delivered a sharp throw to second. Lugo caught the ball, but rather than coming across the bag to generate momentum towards first base, he kept one foot planted on the bag.
As such, he had nothing on his throw to first, and Reed was safe by a couple of steps. Rather than the Sox being out of the inning, the Mets had runners on the corners with two outs.
The consequences came quickly. The Mets had a pair of soft singles to center that scored a pair of runs, and gave them a 4-2 lead that was too much for the Sox to overcome with Johan Santana on the mound.
Lugo was unapologetic.
“I was trying to stay on the bag for the sure out. Get the first one first before we do anything,” said Lugo. “That’s the way I should have done it. I made the throw. He just beat it. That’s all I could do.”
However, the fact that Lugo failed to put himself in a position to make the play even close was clearly the source of some frustration to the Sox. First-base and infield coach Tim Bogar was seen lecturing the shortstop in the dugout following the inning. Pedroia was blunt in his postgame assessment.
“We had to turn that double play. That’s the biggest thing. If that double play’s turned, we win the game,” said Pedroia. “We have to turn that double play in that situation. That’s obvious. Everyone knows that. It just didn’t happen.”
Lugo’s poor defense at short thus far this year has been a consistent theme. Of course, the alternative on the current major-league roster is Nick Green, a second baseman by trade who is also ill-equipped to play short on an everyday basis. Unlike 2008, when the Sox used Alex Cora as a late-innings defensive replacement for Lugo, the Sox do not have another player who represents a significant improvement on his defense.
All of that makes even more significant the return of Jed Lowrie from surgery on his left wrist. Lowrie, who took grounders at short prior to yesterday’s game, is doing well in his rehab. Tuesday will mark the five-week point of his rehab, which was estimated at the time of the surgery as a six- to eight-week process.
Lowrie did not commit an error as the Sox’ everyday shortstop in the second half of last season. The Sox are eager to reclaim a player who offers the promise of infield stability.
“Young kids heal quicker than older guys. I wouldn't be surprised if he's right on time or a little early," said Francona. “He’s a very hard worker and he’s very diligent in what he’s doing.
"He's just trying to do a little bit more every day. When I'm not looking, I'm not sure what he's doing, like a lot of players. One day I went down to go to the bathroom in the fifth inning, and he had a bat in his hand. He gave me that look like he got caught, but all good players do that."
THE RED SOX PITCHING STAFF CONTINUES TO IMPROVE
Matsuzaka’s return was merely one element in a multi-part reshaping of the pitching staff. Justin Masterson, who occupied the rotation in Matsuzaka’s place, made his first appearance out of the bullpen, logging three innings and allowing one run on three hits while striking out three. He now adds yet another weapon to the Sox’ tremendous bullpen depth.
“I think we missed (Masterson) in the bullpen,” said Francona. “Him being back there will not only give us a quality bullpen guy, but it will ease the innings on other guys.”
Additionally, the Sox were heartened by the reports from the first rehab outing by John Smoltz, this one in Augusta, Ga., for the Single-A Greenville Drive in the South Atlantic League. Smoltz, who was back in the Red Sox dugout for Friday’s game, threw three scoreless innings. His fastball velocity sat at 90-91, peaking at 92 mph.
“The velocity was maybe even better than expected,” said Francona. “That’s not too bad. He could pitch in the big leagues with that and probably win. … That was a good sign. And he held it all the way through.”
Smoltz is now slated to head to pitch for Double-A Portland in Manchester, N.H., on Tuesday, after which the Sox and Smoltz will determine the venue for his following rehab start.
Francona did suggest that Smoltz may not follow a straight progression up different levels of the minor-league system, suggesting that the team expects there to be times when he heads back to pitch against lower levels to build arm strength.
BASEBALL IS A BUSINESS … ESPECIALLY FROM NOW UNTIL THE END OF JULY
Earlier this week, the White Sox and Padres agreed on a deal that would have sent 2007 Cy Young winner Jake Peavy to Chicago’s South Side. Though Peavy (who has a no-trade clause) vetoed the deal, the near-deal acted as something of a starter pistol for the summer trade season.
Certainly, despite the 84-degree game-time temperature at Fenway, it felt as if the hot-stove was cooking on a couple of burners.
A) Manny Delcarmen’s agent, Jim Masteralexis, was told by Red Sox officials that the Nationals approached Boston about a trade that would send reliever Manny Delcarmen to Washington in exchange for first baseman Nick Johnson. Masteralexis was told by the Sox that the trade proposal was “immediately shot down.”
Delcarmen is 1-1 with a 0.95 ERA for the Red Sox this year. He is making $476,000, becomes arbitration eligible for the first time after this season and is under team control through the 2012 season. Johnson is in the final year of a three-year, $16.5 million contract that is paying him $5.5 million this year. He will be a free agent following the season.
“I was a little nervous. I was eating lunch, and the texts I got from my agent were weird, kind of broken up: Red Sox…call me back…,” said Delcarmen. “I called him and he told me no worries. (The Nationals) brought it up and the Red Sox shot it down right away. It feels pretty good, knowing I’m a big part of the team here and everything has been great. I don’t see myself going anywhere else. I was pretty happy.”
The idea of a Delcarmen-for-Johnson exchange was first reported by Peter Gammons during an interview on ESPN’s "Mike & Mike" morning show Friday.
B) Rob Bradford learned the Red Sox and Jason Bay have not been engaged in any negotiations since spring training. The two sides were apparently as much as $4 million a year apart, and they also did not see eye-to-eye on the length of a deal.
C) The presence of Johan Santana on the mound for the Mets offered an unavoidable sense of “what if…” Santana, of course, was tremendous, allowing three runs (two earned) in his seven innings of work while increasing his ERA to 1.50 for the season.
Even so, despite his excellent outing on Friday, Santana has not been a dominant pitcher at Fenway. As a visitor, he is 2-3 with a 5.56 ERA including last night’s win.
KEVIN YOUKILIS’ CAREER AS A COMIC GOT OFF TO A BAD START
Following the game, winning pitcher Johan Santana took exception with Kevin Youkilis for the hitter’s actions after being plunked in the fifth inning of Friday night’s 5-3 Mets’ win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Santana hit Youkilis with a 93 mph fastball that was in just off the plate. (Youkilis’ tendency to crowd the plate makes him a frequent destination for opponents’ pitches.) Youkilis said something to the mound with a bit of a grin, and then Santana began shouting at him.
“I just told him to just take his base,” Santana said. “That was about it. But he was still looking at me and talking and it fires me up. I’ve got respect for everybody and I respect this game but at the same time, I’m going to play hard. If you’re looking at me like that, you’re going to get it back because I’m a gamer and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Youkilis said that he was merely joking after getting hit, and that he uttered in jest to the pitcher, “(Expletive) – that hurt.”
“I was joking around,” said Youkilis. “He told me to head to first base. Whatever. I was headed that way. I don’t know. Maybe I should have ran to first base. Like I’ve said, I’ve changed a lot of my ways of playing the game. Maybe I need to revert back to getting (ticked) off, throwing my bat down and going down to first. I’m not going to change my ways now. I’m pretty happy with going out there, enjoying the game and having fun.
“Everyone always told me in my career that I shouldn’t get so serious, you should enjoy the game and joke around,” Youkilis added. “When I do do it, I change my ways and joke around a little bit, I guess it’s the wrong thing. What are you going to do? Win some, lose some, I guess.”
AGAINST LEFT-HANDED PITCHERS, JASON VARITEK AND ALBERT PUJOLS ARE A COIN-FLIP RIGHT NOW
Player A: .302 average / .444 OBP / .721 slugging / 5 homers, 9 RBI, 43 at-bats
Player B: .346 average / .419 OBP / .962 slugging / 5 homers, 8 RBI, 26 at-bats
Player A represents the line for Albert Pujols against left-handed pitchers this year. Player B represents the line for Varitek against southpaws. Varitek, after going 2-for-3 with a homer against southpaw Santana, is in a fairly dominant run.
In fact, his only non-hit against the Mets starter was a ball he rocketed to short with such force that it kicked off of the glove of Ramon Martinez and caromed all the way down the left-field line. The rocket was ruled an error.
“Ramon Martinez, he has a wife and kids to think about … I didn’t think that was an error,” said Youkilis. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ball hit off an infielder and hit the wall. To me, that’s a hit.”
Varitek was utterly unbothered by the official scorer’s ruling, noting that the Sox scored a run. Even so, it is clear that for the moment, he is a force while swinging right-handed, and his overall production against lefties has been as good as that of nearly any hitter in baseball.