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Dice-K gets filthy vs. Rays

Dice-K gets flithy vs. Rays

BOSTON -- Lost amid the overall inconsistency by the Red Sox in the month of June was the full-fledged groove that Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched himself into. If his inaugural July outing was any indication, Matsuzaka is ready to go on the type of dominant run that made him a legend back in Japan.

The right-hander used a filthy arsenal of pitches -- not to mention some slick glove work -- to silence the Devil Rays, 4-1, on Tuesday night at Fenway Park.

If not for the 122 pitches Matsuzaka (nine strikeouts, four hits, one walk) logged over eight innings, he likely would have been granted the opportunity to go after his first Major League shutout.

Matsuzaka's final pitch was an 86-mph changeup that froze fellow Japanese rookie Akinori Iwamura for strike three. A deafening roar filled Fenway as Matsuzaka strode back to the dugout.

"That was right where he needed to end," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "And if he agreed, I know it was right, because I have to wrestle him some nights."

Is Red Sox Nation getting a full-fledged look at the guy who thrived for the Seibu Lions for the last eight years?

"I don't yet think that it's complete," Matsuzaka said of his transition. "But I do feel like I'm getting back to a good spot, and I've really been experiencing that over the past few starts."

This was the fourth consecutive start Matsuzaka allowed one run or less, and he hasn't allowed more than two runs in any of his last six starts. During that glittering stretch, his ERA has gone from 4.83 to 3.53. And in all six of those outings, Matsuzaka recorded eight strikeouts or more.

"He's doing an outstanding job," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "For him, a pitcher that has dominant stuff, as guys see him more, the hitters have to adjust to them more than he has to adjust to the league, so that's going to be a good thing for us. He can throw three, four pitches for strikes. That's to our advantage."

After being plagued by a lack of run support in recent weeks, Matsuzaka had enough offense at his back in this one to run his record to 10-5.

"As a starting pitcher, having run support early on in the game of course helps, but today, I wasn't too worried about the score," said Matsuzaka. "Similar to before, I wasn't worried."

The Red Sox were able to get the best of a pitcher (Scott Kazmir) who has handcuffed them more than they'd care to remember in recent years.

Kazmir lost his control in the second, walking the first three batters. Jason Varitek nearly hit into a double play, but the Rays could only get the out at first base when second baseman Ty Wiggington bobbled the ball. Varitek was credited with an RBI and the Red Sox took the lead.

Julio Lugo stepped up with two outs and ended his 0-for-33 drought with a two-run single up the middle. It was Lugo's first hit since June 14.

"I was just happy," Lugo said. "I felt I could do it. I'm just glad to get one right out of there. It's a big relief, you know? Especially when you get a chance to drive some guys in. It's a big relief to get a hit and get some of the tension out."

With a 3-0 lead in his back pocket, Matsuzaka wasn't about to give it up. He rolled through the first five innings, allowing just two hits while striking out seven.

The Red Sox tacked on another run in the sixth, getting a single by Kevin Youkilis, an infield hit by Lowell that included an error to put runners on second and third with one out, and then a sac fly to right by Varitek.

From there, Matsuzaka took his foot off the gas pedal and settled back into cruise control. The Devil Rays barely threatened him at all, never having more than one baserunner in a single inning.

This was right up there with the compete-game gem against the Tigers and the seven shutout innings against the Giants as the best the Red Sox have seen from Matsuzaka.

Where did Francona rate it?

"I knew I was going to get asked that question," said the Boston manager. "I don't think I'm in the rating business, but he was good, from the very beginning. He threw all his pitches for strikes. I thought he located very well with all his pitches and kept them off-balance. That was a very, very good effort."

The Devil Rays, who have lost nine in a row, weren't in position to disagree.

"I don't think he had anything overpowering, like a closer's fastball. Or something like, really filthy, like a real dirty split-finger," said Devil Rays right fielder Jonny Gomes. "But with his five, six, seven, eight pitches, whatever he's got, he was just keeping us off-balance. You can't go up there sitting on a pitch, because he's got so many and he throws so many for strikes."

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

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