Dice-K chops up Braves

Dice-K chops up Braves

BOSTON -- Combine Daisuke Matsuzaka's dominance with an overpowering performance by the Boston bats and what you get is an unstoppable force too imposing for the Braves. It added up to a 13-3 romp for the Red Sox, setting the stage for an afternoon so relaxing that the Fenway Faithful broke into the tomahawk chop by the bottom of the sixth inning.

The Red Sox couldn't have picked a better way to kick off Saturday's day-night doubleheader against the Braves.

Matsuzaka looked a lot like the man who pitched a complete-game gem against the Tigers just five days earlier. In this one, he broke out with six shutout innings before finally surrendering three runs in the seventh. By that time, the game was already well in control for the Red Sox.

Matsuzaka is in that groove that every starting pitcher seeks, and the Braves, until it was way too late, had little luck in trying to get him out of it.

Over his last three starts, Matsuzaka is 3-0 with a 1.87 ERA. This, coming on the heels of a three-start slump.

"He had a little bump in the road as a lot of people do," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "Some guys have it in August. He fought through it and worked hard. Now we're seeing the results of a lot of hard work and a really good pitcher."

In going eight innings, Matsuzaka scattered nine hits and three runs. For the second start in a row, he didn't issue a walk. Matsuzaka struck out six.

And yes, he wanted to pitch the ninth despite the lopsided score.

"Given my pitch count at the end of the eighth inning, I was expecting to go back out there in the ninth," Matsuzaka said through translator Masa Hoshino. "I think given my pace up to that point, it would have been normal to go back for the ninth inning, but the manager came in and spoke to me and said that, given our big lead, I should go and get some rest."

Technically, Matsuzaka is labeled a rookie. But of late, he's been demonstrating why he had such a successful career in Japan.

"He just gave us another quality start and that's so important with this team," said Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "His location of his fastball has been better, to set up all of his other pitches. He threw some phenomenal splits today. You just learn every day. Every time he's out there, you have a different experience with different pitches."

The Red Sox provided plenty of wind at Matsuzaka's back, highlighted by four long balls, including Mike Lowell's grand slam in the fifth. It was just part of a big day for Lowell, who went 4-for-5.

Meanwhile, Matsuzaka improved to 6-2. But no individual is as hot as the Red Sox are as a team. With a Major League-leading record of 29-12, the Sox have won 10 of their last 12 and 17 out of 22.

"We have a very balanced lineup," said Lowell. "We have a lot of different ways we can score runs. This year we've added a dimension of speed with [Julio] Lugo and Coco [Crisp]. Manny [Ramirez] still hasn't gotten hot like he's going to, where he'll basically carry the team for like 10 days at a time. We're playing good baseball, but I think we can actually do better in the sense of the numbers guys are expecting."

DAZZLING DICE-K
Daisuke Matsuzaka turned in his third consecutive splendid outing on Saturday afternoon against the Braves. In his last 24 innings, the right-hander has allowed just five runs, fanned 19 batters and issued just three free passes.
Date
Opponent
Pitches
Innings
Strikeouts
Walks
Runs
5/9 Blue Jays 108 7 8 3 1
5/14 Tigers 124 9 5 0 1
5/19 Braves 103 8 6 0 3

It took the Red Sox all of one batter to set the offensive tone for the day. Lugo, leading off the bottom of the first, ripped into an Anthony Lerew offering and put it into the Monster Seats. It was No. 3 on the season for Lugo.

Lerew, making his third Major League start, didn't have anything going. Kevin Youkilis pummeled a two-run homer to center in the second to make it 3-0.

The last thing the Braves needed in Game 1 of a doubleheader was an abbreviated outing by a starter. But that's exactly what they got, with Lerew being yanked after allowing five hits and three runs over two innings.

Lowell broke whatever tension might have been left in the game by mauling a grand slam over the Monster and on to Lansdowne Street in the bottom of the fifth. That gave Matsuzaka a 7-0 cushion, and he was cruising right along, throwing a mere 67 pitches over the first six innings.

"I feel like I am doing better compared to the outset of the season, so it definitely looks like that," said Matsuzaka, when asked if he's feeling more comfortable.

The Red Sox themselves? Their overall comfort level couldn't be more apparent.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.