Matsuzaka searching for answers

Matsuzaka searching for answers

BOSTON -- Shortly before Daisuke Matsuzaka delivered his first pitch to Ichiro Suzuki on Thursday night, the two Japanese superstars squared off in a contest of unorthodox stretching routines.

While Ichiro shifted his weight on and off each of his legs, Matsuzaka swung his hands back and forth, rotating at the hips like a propeller. The two men, who have been known to enjoy the attention that comes with being the best from their home country, took plenty of time readying for the moment of their anticipated rematch.

But something wasn't quite right in the run-up for Matsuzaka, a fact he acknowledged after the game. Reacting to two uneven starts against the Yankees, Matuzaka "changed [his] routine a little bit," he said through his interpreter, while refusing to elaborate.

But the results were the same. Once again, the Red Sox rookie was not at his best in Boston's 8-7 victory over Seattle. He walked Ichiro on six pitches, and then walked the bases loaded. Soon, Dice-K was pegging Richie Sexson on a two-strike count and suffering the fallout of an untimely error at short.

In a heartbeat, Matsuzaka was in a five-run hole and headed for his third straight disappointing performance.

"I wonder," he said, when asked what led to his poor first inning. "I don't really know what happened myself."

After that, Matsuzaka settled down. In the second inning, he started "afresh." Matsuzaka retired eight straight batters and cruised into to the fifth, but he then was nicked again with a walk and three scattered singles. By the end of the inning Matsuzaka was out, the victim of his worst performance yet in Boston.

No, something wasn't quite right. Once again, though, it was not immediately evident what, exactly, was wrong.

"They didn't knock him all over the ballpark," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "It goes down for me to command. When he commands, he will go very deep into a game. And right now it's a little bit of a battle for him."

How often does a pitcher allow seven runs and only one extra-base hit? Matsuzaka entered the game with an ERA (4.36) that was nearly two runs higher than Josh Beckett. But opponents were slugging only .331 against Matsuzaka, just barely off Beckett's .325 pole-sitting pace and far better than the .399 that hitters are slugging against ace Curt Schilling.

Matsuzaka, who finished the night by allowing seven runs, five hits, five walks and just one strike out over five innings, indicated that the quality of his pitches has not decreased.

"I feel that I've been able to approach the game in the same manner that I usually do," he said. "And I don't think it's a lack of confidence in my stuff that's a problem."

But, he added, "I definitely know that I need to change something."

For catcher Jason Varitek, Matsuzaka's struggles are less a matter of ability, more an issue of efficiency.

LOST RELEASE POINT
Daisuke Matsuzaka turned in his shortest outing of the season on Thursday night at Fenway against the Mariners, going only five innings in a 96-pitch outing. It was the third time in six starts in which the right-hander has run into trouble in one specific inning.
Date
Team
Inning
Pitches
BB
H
Runs
Result
5/3Mariners1st35311Sox 8-7
4/27Yankees4th41334Sox 11-4
4/17Blue Jays4th38322Jays 2-1

"I think he's just battling himself right now," Varitek said. "He battled himself all game, actually. He needs one clean outing to get him going again."

"He's been off probably his last three outings, for him, in my eyes," he added. "He's battling himself right now and his feel and his release. He gets that and he's going to be just fine."

Boston's $102-million man is not off by much, the Red Sox seem to agree. Beneath the steadily climbing ERA is a strikeout rate that remains one per inning. Occasionally, when opponents flail at Matsuzaka's changeup or react awkwardly to the scattershot velocities of his multiple fastballs, the talent is there for all to see.

But as Thursday night showed, even small problems can beget much larger ones.

On this night, the Red Sox had an unusually shallow bullpen. They had just placed Mike Timlin on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis and Devern Hansack was unavailable since he pitched a side session earlier in the day . Francona wouldn't use Hideki Okajima, who had appeared in three straight games, and preferred not to go to closer Jonathan Papelbon.

"Tonight," Francona said, "was the night when we were thinking we were going to get Dice-K deep in this game."

But, he added, "it was getting a little dicey there."

Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.