Once it came time to pitch for real, the Matsuzaka the Red Sox came to love in the month of June was back. The right-hander from Japan turned in a dominant performance on a night he needed to, lifting the Red Sox to a 1-0 victory over the Indians and C.C. Sabathia.
"I'm grateful for the one run that my teammates were able to score against him, and that obviously made the difference," Matsuzaka said through translator Masa Hoshino. "We had won some games in a row coming into this game, I'm very glad that I didn't stop the winning streak."
The Red Sox have now won five in a row to keep the red-hot Yankees 7 1/2 games back in the American League East. The streak has coincided with David Ortiz missing the last four games with a strained left shoulder.
"We're going to quit trying to do that," Francona said. "[Ortiz is] going to play [on Wednesday]. I think he took enough grief from everybody about that. We'll take our chances with him."
Over seven shutout innings, Matsuzaka (12-7, 3.79 ERA) gave up four hits while walking three and striking out five. Matsuzaka, who was legendary for the amount of pitches he could throw in a game in Japan, was at a modest 98 pitches after seven. But Francona, with his dominant 1-2 punch of Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon waiting, went to the bullpen.
"I certainly felt OK for continuing to pitch in the eighth inning," Matsuzaka said. "The manager came up to me and said that Okajima and Papelbon would take it from here. When you hear those names, it's tough to argue. I'm sure the manager is very happy to have those guys in the back of the bullpen. My goal going forward is continue working hard and help ease the burden on our great bullpen."
Francona's main motive for going to Okajima in the eighth instead of Matsuzaka is that it turned Victor Martinez around to the right side, and also gave the Sox a lefty-lefty matchup with the highly dangerous Travis Hafner.
Okajima (0.91 ERA) and Papelbon (23 saves) took it home by retiring all six they faced.
To be sure, this was a collective effort by the 61-39 Sox. Wily Mo Pena ran face-first into the wall to make a nice catch in left off Casey Blake in the fifth. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia threw out Hafner from short right field to end that same inning. Kevin Youkilis pounced on a bunt and nabbed lead runner Ben Francisco in the seventh.
"That was a play that I don't think a lot of first basemen attempt, let alone make it," Francona said. "How do you know at the time what's going to be enough? That's why you play a good defensive game, you get pitching, the team looks crisp, then you score one and it's enough."
It might not have been enough, if Mike Lowell's bloop into left in the fourth inning didn't fall just in front of Francisco to bring home Youkilis with what wound up the game's only run.
"I was just hoping, like any other time, that a bloop hit might fall," said Lowell. "I [was] hoping it drops and it worked out."
Not much else worked out against Sabathia, who fell short in his quest for win No. 14 through no fault of his own.
"He's great," said Lowell. "He's a dominating pitcher. He's so big, it looks like he's throwing the ball at about 30 feet away. There's some big guys who throw 88 [mph], but it's a little difference when a guy is throwing 96 with a good slider and a good changeup. ... He definitely has the ability to shut down offenses. He's an elite pitcher in this league, there's no doubt about it."
What was the difference for Matsuzaka in this one compared to the previous three outings, during which he had a 7.31 ERA?
"I think my stuff was about the same, but I definitely felt my control was better today and I felt I was able to pitch well with runners on board," Matsuzaka said.
Matsuzaka had a difficult first inning, throwing 26 pitches. But he was able to wiggle out of it without a run, striking out Jhonny Peralta on a splitter to end the inning.
"They made him work," Francona said. "Thankfully, he worked out of it. You don't know at the time when we score that one run that it's going to hold up. He got into the flow of the game and really kicked it in gear."
All in all, it was a gratifying night for the Sox.
"That's a good lineup," said Francona. "That was a Major League game pitched by both guys. You're not going to see too many 1-0 games here against that lineup."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.