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Matsuzaka takes aim against Jays

Matsuzaka takes aim against Jays

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Stoked by tireless preseason hype and a healthy sense of mystery, Dice-K mania roared into Fenway Park -- and into living room conversations nationwide -- with rare ferocity in early April. Owing, maybe, to Daisuke Matsuzaka's uncertain start in Boston, that mania has since subsided to a slow burn.

It didn't have to be that way. Many are discovering now what a few suspected all along: Matsuzaka might very well have emerged as the No. 2 pitcher on the best team in baseball.

"He's getting better, day in and day out," says Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo. "[As] he gets to know the hitters, [and] the hitters get to know him, he's competing well."

When the second half of Matsuzaka's rookie big-league season begins on Saturday against Toronto, questions will remain. Can Dice-K improve upon his 20-win first-half pace, in which he finished in the American League's top five in strikeouts (123), strikeouts per nine innings (9.25) and posted a 3.84 ERA?

"I think so," Lugo says. "When he gets to know more of the league, and knows the hitters, and knows the other players around, and starts feeling comfortable ... I think he's going to get better."

As one of barely a dozen American Leaguers who have faced Matsuzaka at least eight times, Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells, who has one hit in six at-bats vs. Dice-K, might be feeling the Dice-K fatigue. Toronto has two more three-game series against the Red Sox in 2007; the team can expect to face Matsuzaka at least once more this season.

At each turn, home and away, AL East regulars like Wells are constantly answering questions about the Red Sox's Japanese star.

"He throws strikes, throws a fastball, throws a cutter, throws a curveball, throws a changeup," says Wells, who insists that there is nothing especially different about Matsuzaka. "He's a big-league pitcher."

Wells, who also faced Matsuzaka during the Major Leagues' biennial tour of Japan, pauses. He clarifies his stance.

"When you have good stuff and you're confident, like he is," Wells says, "you're going to have a chance to win games and be dominant. He can be that on any given night."

Pitching matchup
BOS: RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka (10-6, 3.84 ERA)
Four big-league teams have faced Matsuzaka more than once. Of them, the Blue Jays have fared worst. Toronto has managed just three runs in Matsuzaka's two starts against them, spanning 13 innings, eight hits, 18 strikeouts, a win and a loss.

TOR: RHP Dustin McGowan (5-4, 4.65 ERA)
McGowan, a 25-year-old former sandwich pick of the Blue Jays, has shown flashes of brilliance in his first season as a rotation regular. He has also taken his share of knocks. Since his first quality start on May 23, McGowan has lowered his ERA from 7.17 to 4.65, nearly throwing a no-hitter on June 24 in a complete game against Colorado. That breakout performance against the Rockies followed a 1 2/3-inning shellacking by the Dodgers and a five-run clunker at Seattle. He finished the first half with seven shutout innings in Oakland.

Player to watch
Toronto right fielder Alex Rios went 4-for-4 in Matsuzaka's second start against the Blue Jays. He hit a home run over the Green Monster in his first game back from a name-making All-Star break as a State Farm Home Run Derby finalist.

Tickets
 Buy tickets now to catch the game in person.

On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• NESN

On radio
• WRKO 680, WROL (Español)

Up next
• Sunday: Red Sox (Josh Beckett, 12-2, 3.44) vs. Blue Jays (Jesse Litsch, 1-3, 4.74), 2:05 p.m. ET
• Monday: Red Sox (Kason Gabbard, 2-0, 4.87) vs. Royals (Brian Bannister, 5-5, 3.71), 7:05 p.m. ET
• Tuesday: Red Sox (Tim Wakefield, 10-8, 4.47) vs. Royals (John Thomson, 1-1, 3.38), 7:05 p.m. ET

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

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