Nobody seems to remember the moment the decision was made. Neither pitching coach John Farrell nor members of the Red Sox front office.
It would seem like such an instance might be frozen in time — the surfacing of an idea that had never been executed before.
The premise was to take a fairly healthy major league pitcher in the middle of a season and use June, July and August to serve as the spring training months of February and March. Things not working out, let’s just start over.
As Farrell explained after the Red Sox’ 4-1 win over the Angels on Tuesday night: “It’s not very common.”
But, even with the out-of-the-box nature of the plan, nobody can remember how or when starting Daisuke Matsuzaka’s season over from scratch was actually broached for the first time. The consensus was that it was surely some time shortly after his uninspired June 19 start against the Braves, but the actual moment of enlightenment still escapes them.
No matter how it happened. It seems to have worked.
“I know we were talking the other night — What’s the blueprint for getting a guy back like this? — and I don’t know if there is one,” Farrell said.
Matsuzaka re-emerged in a major league uniform a different pitcher — with an altered waste size — than when he last left the Red Sox. It was more than just the results — six shutout innings in which the newly turned 29-year-old allowed just three hits. It also was the way he did it.
Of Matsuzaka’s 93 pitches, 61 were fastballs. That’s 66 percent fastballs, or more than 12 percent of heaters than he had averaged in any of his two previous seasons with the Red Sox.
The hitters noticed. The coaches took heed. And Matsuzaka’s teammates were offering double-takes.
Wednesday night starter Paul Byrd, for instance, hadn’t seen Matsuzaka post-World Baseball Classic and in the heart of his early 2009 struggles. He had only witnessed the guy who finished fourth in the Cy Young balloting while chalking up 18 wins last year. Still, even from those ’09 jumping-off points, Byrd recognized a difference.
“A lot of guys were talking about how he had a jump on his fastball that wasn’t there earlier this year,” Byrd said. “I don’t even remember it being like that last year. His fastball had a little explosion to it.”
Meanwhile, rookie Daniel Bard had only seen the less-than-spectacular Matsuzaka. Other than watching games on television, the reliever’s lone introduction to the pitcher had been in the waning days of spring training and six of Matsuzaka's ’09 starts. And needless to say, the impression most likely hadn’t been impressive.
Tuesday night was an image Bard hadn’t been privy to.
“I saw a guy who battled, who got some guys on early, walked the leadoff guy, but stayed in there,” Bard said. “It just looked like a different pitcher than we saw earlier in the year. Before, he was a little more timid and wasn’t as confident, today he was confident, attacking hitters. He was pitching with conviction, you didn’t see that earlier. Hitters can sense it, too. When you feel like you’ve got it, which I think he did when he went out there, the hitters can sense it. They’re not quite as comfortable in the box.”
When the notion of a chest-out, head-held-high Matsuzaka was brought up with Farrell, his reaction was: “He should feel good about himself.” And with the performance and physical transformation, that is cogent analysis. But it should be noted that the player shouldn’t be alone in the recognition.
Even though nobody can remember the exact moment the plan was hatched, it was born at some point, and for that the organization should be offered a tip of the chapeau.
This was Lewis and Clark kind of stuff — unexplored territory in the realm of a big league season/pitching staff/starting rotation.
Some cynics might suggest that the whole procedure was a luxury for a team that should have had tighter reigns on Matsuzaka to begin with. But those people should ask themselves: “How did the Red Sox gain such an extravagance that they could afford to prioritize their No. 3 starter doing sit-ups in Fort Myers instead of pitching in the heart of a baseball season?”
The answer can be found within another criticism of the Red Sox — the signing of Brad Penny and John Smoltz.
You have to remember that when it was determined that Matsuzaka’s job description was being identified as simply to get in shape, optimism was running high for both Penny and Smoltz.
Penny was coming off back-to-back starts in which he allowed one run over a combined 11 innings, and Smoltz found himself cruising through minor league rehab assignments on the way to a June 25 return to the majors. And we’re not even mentioning the pitcher who has taken the role of No. 3 starter — that for which Matsuzaka had been earmarked coming into the season — Clay Buchholz, who was still reporting to work in Pawtucket.
There were times during Matsuzaka’s hiatus that the extravagance of the pitcher’s reconstruction did weigh on Red Sox fans' patience. (The pitching staff’s ERA, 4.90, was 20th in the majors in August.) But, still, this was a team that managed the third-most wins (45) of any American League team since the Daisuke experiment was put in motion.
Bottom line: The Red Sox took a chance and, if Tuesday night was any indication, it paid off. Credit should be given, and not to just the pitcher whose inadequacies made the whole ball of wax a necessity.
Here are four more things we learned on Daisuke’s big night …
ABOUT THAT FASTBALL …
If there was one aspect of Matsuzaka’s outing that most wanted to highlight, it was the effectiveness — and use — of his fastball. What had been a flat 89 mph when we last saw the righty turned into a lively 93 mph.
When was the last time Farrell had seen such a pitch out of the hand of Matsuzaka?
“Last year, it wasn’t this year,” the pitching coach said. “This is the best he’s thrown the ball all of 2009. There were times [last year]. I wouldn’t say it was every start. There was life and some carry and some carry through the zone. I think some balls stayed through some barrels. I’m not going to say it was rising, but it seemed to have that second gear through the zone.”
Even from three-quarters of a baseball field away, left fielder Jason Bay noticed.
“He was attacking the plate with his fastball today, but he was able to do that because his fastball had some life on it,” Bay said. “Before he went on the DL he was kind of laying the fastball in there. You could tell from the first inning he had some life on it, and everything stems from that. It seemed there were more fastballs and not secondary stuff.”
So how did this heater magically appear? It starts with the stomach.
When laying out their open-ended plan for Matsuzaka back in June, the one thing the Red Sox prioritized was getting the pitcher in shape. More specifically, he had to develop some core strength, which would feed the rest of his body’s execution.
As Farrell put it, “I think the fastball command is a by-product of the shape he’s in.”
The praise from the pitching coach kept on coming …
“He should be commended for the work that he’s done in reshaping himself, getting his core strength, everything about the work he did on the DL showed up tonight.”
“His body control was better. I think that’s a result of overall improved core strength, he maintained a much better arm slot. He got a lot of outs from his fastball, which I think any major league starter has to do. That being said, it was a big step for him and a big lift for us.”
There there was …
“If he didn’t commit to the work needed, we probably wouldn’t be sitting there talking about him tonight. But the fact he did in some very lonely outings in Fort Myers, Florida, when nobody is around, that’s where his drive and motivation came through.”
And finally …
“There was a foundation that needed to be established from a physical standpoint. Once that was built we didn’t have as much reservation in terms of workload and pitch count.”
When Matsuzaka pitched his very first game in a Red Sox uniform, in an exhibition game against Boston College, his fastball sat at 93-94 mph, numbers that were slightly deflating considering the hype that led into the outing.
“Don’t worry,” said one baseball official sitting in the stands who had seen Matsuzaka numerous times prior to his trip overseas. “He’ll be better over time.”
Tuesday night, he was.
THE RESULTS CHANGED, AND SO DID THE PERCEPTION
When last we saw Matsuzaka he was being booed roundly by the Fenway Park fans upon walking off the mound in his uneasy start against the Braves. Tuesday night, those same patrons were ready to pounce again.
When Matsuzaka walked Chone Figgins to start the game, the rumblings of negativity easily could be heard throughout the stands. With every ball thrown in that first inning, some sense of disapproval could be distinguished in the seats.
The fans weren’t forgetting the position Matsuzaka had put himself, and his team, in thanks to his lack of due diligence. More so than perhaps since he was 19 years old, the pitcher had to prove himself. Tuesday night he did.
Two hours after being showered with the fans’ disdain, Matsuzaka walked off the mound to a standing ovation.
“I think I was able to approach my start today just as I regularly would. In the last start I left amidst some boos, so to be able to come back and experience that today was something very special as a ballplayer,” Matsuzaka said through translator Masa Hoshino. “If I could say one thing, I didn’t want to leave in the middle of the [seventh] inning. But I’ve very grateful for the fans’ response today. “
And, as Matsuzaka acknowledged, it wasn’t only the paying public that needed some reassurance.
“On the road back I’ve been a burden on my teammates more than anything, and I feel that I owe them. There’s not much left in the season, but the limited time and the limited opportunity that I do have I want to show my appreciation to my teammates and the fans by contributing in a positive way.”
NO SECRETS FOR BARD
Daniel Bard only faced one batter Tuesday night, throwing three pitches, but it was a moment he will never forget.
No, it wasn’t because he got the inning-ending forceout at second with a ground ball up the middle. Or due to the fact that the ball grazed off his right index finger on the way to shortstop Alex Gonzalez’ glove.
It was because of who Bard found himself facing — Vladimir Guerrero.
Sometimes you forget — thanks in part to a 99 mph fastball — that Bard is still a 24-year-old rookie. But his admitting that certain hitters such as Guerrero strike a sense of awe reminds you of the reliever’s reality.
“It crossed my mind. I thought, ‘This is pretty cool,’ ” Bard said of facing Guerrero. “I can’t say I was intimidated. I felt good about my stuff in that situation. It was cool, though, a guy I grew up watching in All-Star Games for the past 10 years. It was pretty cool.”
Bard said it wasn’t the first time such a feeling has come over him this season.
“A-Rod stands out,” he admitted.
WAKEFIELD DOING WHATEVER HE CAN
Tim Wakefield threw a side session of just more than 40 pitches at Fenway Park on Tuesday. Asked how it went compared to the other similar endeavors following a cortisone shot, the knuckleballer simply said, “The same. I got them all out.”
Asked then how he felt compared to this point when heading into one of his previous two starts, the pitcher added, “The same. Nothing new.”
As sub-optimal as “nothing new” might be to Wakefield these days after he battles through the herniated disc pushing on a nerve in his back, it also figures to be good enough for the hurler to still be eyeing a start with the Red Sox on Sunday in Baltimore.
“I’ve gone this far, I’m not going to pull the plug now,” he said. “I’ve put too much work into it that I’m not going to shut it down. I’m leaving it in the doctors’ hands and they have to tell me when to stop. And they haven’t told me anything like that.”
Wakefield admits he is on the edge of being healthy enough to make that next start, and is of the mind that — while physically able — another cortisone shot probably isn’t in the cards. (”I probably could, but I don’t think it is going to help it,” he said.) As long as the strength in his left leg remains where it is now, which is approximately 60 percent of what his right leg is, he has the go-ahead to give it a whirl.
As Wakefield explains it, “The whole premise of this is strength maintains itself, which obviously it’s not very good now — it’s 60 percent now compared to 100 percent in my right leg — if it starts to go down then it’s time to stop.”