NEW YORK – Moral victories are rarely as satisfying as actual ones. Nonetheless, on a day when Yankees ace CC Sabathia proved nearly unhittable in a 3-0 victory, the Red Sox found themselves taking significant satisfaction in the performance that took place opposite New York’s skyscraping southpaw.
Just as was the case when Clay Buchholz pitched extremely well in defeat when Sabathia had no-hit stuff in early August, the Sox were once again left to marvel at a starter who proved something by going toe-to-toe with the 19-game winner. Daisuke Matsuzaka, in his third start back from the disabled list, was nearly Sabathia’s equal in seven innings.
Matsuzaka gave up six hits, though two were of the infield variety, and two more were on catchable pop-ups that the Sox failed to corral. He allowed just one run, a solo homer to Robinson Cano in the top of the sixth, that proved the difference in the game.
Even Matsuzaka, typically a perfectionist, took some satisfaction in a game when he suffered his first loss since coming off the D.L.
“I know that [Sabathia] has been hot late in the season, so we had our work cut out for us today,” said Matsuzaka. “I really wanted to do what I could to hold their hitters. I think they pushed really hard, and I held on as best as I could. Overall, I think it went okay. I wanted to keep that shutout going as long as I could. I felt confident pitching out there today.”
Matsuzaka showed a powerful arsenal that he sustained over the course of his seven innings and 115 pitches. He sustained a low-90s fastball, tailing changeup, darting slider and a solid curveball throughout his start, and proved willing to throw any pitch at any time.
In a significant sign of faith in the pitcher’s strength, the Sox allowed him to return to the mound for the seventh inning even though Matsuzaka had already cleared 100 pitches. The right-hander responded by mowing through his most efficient inning of the day, a 1-2-3 frame that required just 11 pitches.
“I wasn’t too aware of pitch count going back out there. I was able to go over 100 pitches last time,” Matsuzaka said, referencing his 110-pitch effort against the Orioles. “I think the coaches could see that I still had good life on my pitches late in the game.”
There was another moment that underscored to the Sox that the pitcher who won 33 games for them in 2007-08 has rounded back into familiar form. In the bottom of the fifth inning, the 29-year-old loaded the bases with no outs by allowing Derek Jeter’s swinging bunt single and walking Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira.
That, of course, put Matsuzaka in the familiar position of damage control with the bases juiced. A year ago, Matsuzaka held batters to an astounding 0-for-14 mark with the bases loaded, walking one, hitting one, and allowing a pair of sac flies.
This year, opponents were 0-for-3 with a run-scoring walk in four bases-loaded plate appearances. That mark is now 0-for-6, as Matsuzaka again performed his familiar bases-loaded magic.
The pitcher got Alex Rodriguez to dribble a first-pitch changeup just in front of the plate. Catcher Victor Martinez – who appeared to work brilliantly in his first pairing with Matsuzaka – pounced on the ball, reversed directions and dove to slap a tag on home plate and narrowly force Jeter. Hideki Matsui then likewise reached for a first-pitch changeup, fouling it a few feet behind home plate for the second out.
Finally, Nick Swisher lofted a down-and-away fastball foul down the third-base line. Mike Lowell chased it down in foul territory with a fine over-the-shoulder basket catch on the run, resulting in the third out.
“I think the answer that he’s back is that he got the bases loaded and got right out of it,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “There seems to be a comfort level there.”
The next inning was the one that featured Matsuzaka’s lone mistake of the day, the fastball that was intended to be inside and was instead middle-away. Cano extended his arms and lined it just over the left-field fence for the only run of the afternoon.
From his vantage point, Martinez was extremely impressed by his first exposure to Matsuzaka from behind the plate.
“He won’t give up on any hitter. He’s got pretty good confidence in all his pitches,” said Martinez. “He did a great job. He gave us a pretty good chance to win the ballgame. That’s what it’s all about. He went out there and gave us a pretty strong seven innings. What else can you ask from a starter?”
Indeed, that rhetorical question came with a sense of reassurance. In just three starts, members of the Sox who spent months curious to know what Matsuzaka might be able to offer following his months-long banishment to Fort Myers now have gained confidence in their teammate.
A season that once appeared to be lost is now showing signs of contributions that are just beginning. Matsuzaka has quickly cemented his standing as a strong fourth starter for the Sox in the playoffs, something that allowed his team to gain plenty of encouragement even in defeat on Saturday.
Matsuzaka has now faced two of the likely American League playoff entrants – the Angels and Yankees – and he has dominated both. As the Sox likely prepare to face those teams again in the postseason, they now feel as if they have a fourth starter who can give them a fine chance to win.
“He’s been outstanding, especially going into the last week and the postseason,” said Lowell. “He’s using all his pitches and he’s throwing strikes. I think the fact he went seven innings, that’s a really good sign for us…He’s a guy we know we can count on.”
THE TOP OF THE PLAYOFF ROTATION ALSO APPEARS INTACT
One day after he feared briefly that his season might be over after a line drive clanged off the side of his right knee, Jon Lester returned to Yankee Stadium with limited swelling, and suggested that he expects to make one more start before the end of the regular season. Lester did permit that there is some wiggle room should the team decide that it makes sense to push him back a day or two from his scheduled Thursday start, but overall, he seemed satisfied that his condition will not prevent him from making either another regular-season start or from being ready when the postseason kicks off.
“It’s still attached, so we’re going in the right direction,” Lester joked. “It still hurts, but it will be alright. It’s not too swollen right now, it’s just a little red mark right now so like I said, everything is going in the right direction.”
“He’s got a nice bruise,” noted Sox manager Terry Francona. “He knows he got hit there. But I think all things considered, he looks fantastic.”
Lester said that he will try to throw his scheduled side session on Monday, which would offer a good indication of how much time he might need to be ready to endure the physical demands of a start. Sox manager Terry Francona allowed that a lot of pitchers skip their side sessions between outings at this time of year in an effort to preserve bullets, so if Lester cannot throw between starts, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that he couldn’t take the ball on schedule.
Even if Lester’s start does get nudged back by a day or two, he didn’t seem to think that would be a problem.
“I think we have some flexibility in days as far as which day we’re able to pitch. I think I should be able to start one more time before the end of the season,” said Lester. “I think everything is up in the air right now. As of now, I’m planning on starting my next start, but it’s up to them if they want to be cautious or be conservative and make it a day later or two days later, then that’s what we have to do. I would like to get on the mound again with live hitters and get ready for the playoffs.”
Francona, meanwhile, suggested that if necessary, the Sox could have Lester skip his start and not pitch again in a game atmosphere until the postseason. That said, the team would prefer that he does take the ball in the coming week, since if he is not pitching, it would mean that the pitcher was limping and still dealing with the aftermath of the liner. All things considered, then, the team wants Lester healthy and taking the bump for an anticipated playoff tune-up.
The left-hander said that his knee seems to feel better today than it did on Friday, and that it’s not as stiff as he anticipated after taking a pretty direct shot. He also noted that it was “a good thing the ball hit me where it did,” considering that he did not suffer any sort of break or fracture.
Though encouraged by his physical state, Lester cautioned that he hadn’t actually done any meaningful physical activity, and until he saw how his knee responded to activity, he couldn’t judge whether he had indeed avoided disruption to his routine.
He planned to ride an exercise bike on Saturday to see how his knee was holding up. He’s also been icing his knee in an effort to minimize swelling, which appears to be the biggest threat to his schedule.
“As long as the swelling stays down, then we’re going in the right direction. If that swelling comes back or gets worse, we get behind the eight ball,” he said. “That’s when I won’t be able to pitch. As long as we keep that swelling down, everything will be fine.”
WAGNER IS STRUGGLING TO COMMAND
A day earlier, the subject had seemed an amusing one to Red Sox reliever Billy Wagner.
“I don’t know where [the ball] is going all the time,” said Wagner. “That’s not always a bad thing.”
On Saturday, it was. Wagner kept missing low and in to right-handers, throwing fastball after fastball to their ankles. He walked two batters and hit another to cram the bases with one out. Though he struck out Derek Jeter, Wagner gave up a bloop two-run single to Johnny Damon, who hit a ball just over the heads of Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis into shallow right field.
Francona maintained that it was a good pitch. Wagner didn’t buy it.
“You ever heard of a good pitch getting hit?” he wondered. “It wasn’t that good.”
Even so, the single by Damon was less of an issue than Wagner’s command. He has now walked six batters and hit another in five innings since coming to the Sox. He admitted after Saturday’s game that his mechanics remain a work in progress one year after Tommy John surgery.
“I had chances to get out of the inning, but pretty much deserved what I got,” said Wagner. “The fastball, a lot of it has to do with mechanics, trying to do too much. I was pulling off, and the ball was just sailing out of the strike zone just enough. That’s the most frustrating thing. It’s just, the walks are one thing. But it’s close. The mechanics are getting close, but not close enough.”
BARD ENACTED A MEASURE OF REVENGE
The last time that Daniel Bard had faced Mark Teixeira in Yankee Stadium, the results had been disastrous. Bard left a slider up and over the plate, and Teixeira smoked it for a homer that delivered a crushing loss to the Red Sox on Aug. 9.
Given that memory, and the possibility that the Sox could face the Yankees in the postseason, Bard was eager for the chance to face the switch-hitting slugger again. He received that opportunity with two on and two out in the bottom of the eighth, and sent a message.
Though the Sox typically try to feed Teixeira a steady diet of off-speed stuff, respecting his ability to decimate fastballs, Bard attacked with his heater. He managed to get in on Teixeira’s hands with a 100 mph heater that resulted in an inning-ending groundout to second.
“I wanted to face him,” said Bard. “I feel confident facing him. I just don’t want that home run to be the last thing on his mind when he walks to the plate.”
THE SOX DO NOT WANT YANKEE STADIUM TO BECOME A FESTIVE ENVIRONMENT
The Red Sox arrived in Yankee Stadium on Friday with visions of a champagne celebration. The team hoped that it might become the first to baptize the new Yankee Stadium in champagne by clinching a wild card berth.
With two straight losses to the Yankees, and a pair of wins by the Texas Rangers, that scenario can no longer play out. The Sox cannot leave New York having secured a playoff spot.
Instead, the team merely hopes that their rivals for A.L. East supremacy will not be the ones getting showered in champagne on Sunday. With New York’s magic number now at one, another Yankees win today would secure a division title at the Sox’ expense. Boston would like to avoid having to watch a celebration.
“I don’t think anybody wants to see other people have a party on your account,” said Lowell.