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Dice-K back to form as Red Sox roll

Dice-K back to form as Red Sox roll

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HOUSTON -- As quickly as panic can set in among that ravenous fan base known as Red Sox Nation, it can disappear.

Worried about Daisuke Matsuzaka just because his first start back from the disabled list was the worst -- not to mention shortest -- of his Major League career?

It's officially time to fret about something else. Matsuzaka rebounded in a big way on Friday night, shutting down the Astros with a performance that fueled the Red Sox to a 6-1 victory in Friday night's opener of a 10-game road trip.

In fact, instead of continuing his forgettable labors of five days ago, when he departed with nobody out in the second inning, Matsuzaka instead put himself back in position to be under serious consideration for the American League All-Star team.

"If I'm a pitcher that deserves to be selected for the All-Star team, I'd certainly be happy," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "But it's not something that I'm really worried about or concerned about right now. But it would be nice."

Backed by five shutout innings in which he allowed two hits while walking three and striking out four, Matsuzaka ran his record to 9-1 while lowering his ERA to 3.21.

Does Matsuzaka's batterymate Jason Varitek think the pitcher belongs at Yankee Stadium with the rest of baseball's elite pitchers on July 15?

"Selfishly, no. We need him to rest," quipped Varitek. "But numbers-wise, yeah."

Speaking of worthy All-Stars, J.D. Drew continues to play like one. The Boston right fielder hammered a three-run homer to right in the third, giving him 11 long balls for the month. Contrast that with a year ago, when a struggling Drew hit 11 homers through the entirety of his frustrating first season with the Red Sox.

"How about that?" said Boston manager Terry Francona. "If he keeps taking swings like that, like he has been, the production will be there. If he drives it out of the ballpark or whatever, he's going to have some production."

The victory pushed the Red Sox to 50-32, allowing them to maintain a half-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East. In fact, Boston was the first team in the Majors to reach the 50-win barrier this season.

For that, they owe no small thanks to Drew, who has been enormous since David Ortiz went on the disabled list.

"It's been a nice month," said Drew. "Just try to transition that throughout the rest of the season. Just try to keep the same approach and see what happens."

Kevin Youkilis produced a career-high four hits, and Dustin Pedroia went 3-for-4 to raise his average to .295.

Matsuzaka erased memories of his last start right from the outset, as he struck out the side in the bottom of the first.

"Much better than his last outing, obviously," said Varitek. "He had a much better feel. He was through the zone with his fastball and his breaking stuff, threw some pretty good changeups."

Regarding that last start against St. Louis, where Matsuzaka gave up six hits and seven runs while throwing 48 pitches, he has basically erased it from his memory bank. Instead, the righty looked at Friday night as his true return.

"For me, I'm not even counting my last start," Matsuzaka said. "But I did feel like I did come back with this start. My teammates were quick to mention, 'Congratulations on coming back.' I just hope that gradually I can make up for all the trouble that I caused last start."

After being shut down over the first two innings, the Red Sox got one very big swing from Drew, who clubbed a three-run homer to right with nobody out in the third against starter and loser Runelvys Hernandez (0-1). The shot was set up by a walk from Coco Crisp and a double by Pedroia.

"Slider, down and out, over the plate," Drew said. "I was able to get the barrel to it and got a good result."

Drew has had an uncanny habit of finding the barrel the past few weeks.

"He took a beautiful swing and gave us a three-run cushion," said Francona. "For a while, that's all we had. But it allowed us some time to spread it out a little bit. He took a great swing."

Matsuzaka allowed just two baserunners over the first four innings, but the Astros (37-43) rallied in the fifth, loading the bases with two outs. But Dice-K got the out when he needed to, inducing David Newhan on a popup to short to end the threat.

That was it for Matsuzaka, who threw 87 pitches.

"We were kind of hoping he'd finish around 85," Francona said. "We said that last week, and then it was an abbreviated outing. He ended up getting to 87. I know he felt good, but we want the progression where he gets strong. I thought he looked great."

The Red Sox added to their lead in the seventh, getting an RBI single from the red-hot Pedroia to make it 4-0.

Things did get interesting in the eighth, when lefty reliever Hideki Okajima surrendered a pinch-hit homer to Reggie Abercrombie and then a double to Miguel Tejada that narrowly missed being a homer.

Taking nothing to chance, Francona went to closer Jonathan Papelbon, who got the last four outs for save No. 24.

The Red Sox got two more in the ninth to make it a five-run lead.

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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