Dice-K takes down Mariners

Dice-K takes down Mariners

SEATTLE -- This time, Daisuke Matsuzaka's pitching style was both sharp and effective, instead of just the latter.

If Matsuzaka was trying to win some sort of contest for artistry, he'd fall well short considering many of the laborious outings he's turned in this year. But what Matsuzaka and the Red Sox are both trying to do is win baseball games, and the goal was reached once again on Tuesday night.

With Dice-K leading the way and bullpen saving him once he faltered in the eighth, the Red Sox stifled the Mariners, 4-2, at Safeco Field.

Matsuzaka, who viewed himself almost exclusively as a nine-inning pitcher during his legendary years in Japan, had only one regret following this one.

"If I couldn't throw a complete game today, I don't know when I'm going to be able to do it," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino.

After allowing two runs and three hits while recording one out in the eighth, Matsuzaka, who threw 99 pitches, was replaced in favor of Hideki Okajima.

The lefty setup man turned in a clutch performance that was reminiscent of 2007, getting Raul Ibanez on a groundout and Jose Vidro on a flyout to center.

"The game had gotten to a point where if he doesn't get people out, we're looking at still playing," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "But he made good pitches. I thought Dice-K threw great. This score of the game dictates [taking him out] and a couple of balls were up in that inning. But Oki made good pitches. That's why we're in here [with a win] and we feel good about ourselves."

Another reason was Jonathan Papelbon, who pitched a perfect ninth to pin down save No. 30. In fact, Papelbon has reached that milestone in each of his three seasons, making him the only Red Sox player to save 30 games three times.

"The goal is to get every save I can," said Papelbon. "It feels good to be able to do that and hopefully this is the beginning of a long run."

For all the talk about Matsuzaka's control problems, the fact remains that the right-hander is 11-1 with a 2.63 ERA. In this one, the righty allowed five hits and two runs over 7 1/3 innings, walking three and striking out six.

"He's given up so few hits," Francona said. "Again, he's made it harder sometimes because of his command. But this guy has been a good pitcher. If he keeps winning, I'll gladly answer the questions. He did a good job tonight."

And for all the discussion about the problems the Red Sox have been having on the road, they've quieted some of that by clinching their first away series since June 16-18, when they took two out of three in Philly. Thanks to the Rays suffering an 8-1 loss to Oakland, the 59-43 Red Sox are now just a half-game out in the American League East.

"It's going to come down to the wire, and that's what baseball is all about," said Red Sox right fielder J.D. Drew.

If the Sox were looking for an early jolt, Drew provided it by ripping a solo homer to right with two outs in the first.

Though R.A. Dickey is now a knuckleballer, Drew waited him out and got a fastball he liked on 3-2.

Matsuzaka held it right there, providing the Red Sox a chance to add on in the fifth.

Jacoby Ellsbury started the rally with a bunt single and Dustin Pedroia ripped a double down the line in left. For Pedroia, that marked his 23rd consecutive road game with a hit, tying him with Pete Rose and Joey Cora for the fourth best such streak by a second baseman since 1956.

With second and third and one out, Drew got the job done with a sacrifice fly to right. Mike Lowell followed with an RBI double. Following an intentional walk to Kevin Youkilis, Jed Lowrie produced a sac fly to left to give Matsuzaka a 4-0 cushion.

"We put together the one inning where we got three," Francona said. "We stayed after it and strung some hits together, saw some pitches. That was enough."

It was enough because Matsuzaka was typically stingy.

"I thought he threw his fastball aggressively. I thought he threw some good sliders," Francona said. "I thought, for the most part, he worked ahead in the count. And they're a very aggressive team. He didn't let them back in a lot of counts."

Pitching on eight days' rest, Matsuzaka was every bit as impressive as Jon Lester was on 12 days' rest in the previous game.

"There was a lot of time between these two starts but I felt I was able to approach this game as I normally do," Matsuzaka said.

As for not going the distance?

"Of course I wanted to stay out there on the mound but given that situation, there was nothing that much that I could do," Matsuzaka said.

Then there was Okajima, who could be primed for a strong finish. The key to his recent success? More reliance on the curve.

"It's been my winning pitch lately," Okajima said in a statement to interpreter Jeff Yamaguchi. "Everybody has been sitting on my split. Everybody knows it, [Jason Varitek] knows it."

It is also no secret how vital Okajima's resurgence could be to the Red Sox.

"He's a valuable part of our bullpen and we're going to need him to throw well," Varitek said.

After getting swept by the Angels in three games, the Red Sox are one Wednesday win away from doing the same thing to the Mariners. And another loss by Tampa Bay could send the Red Sox home in first place heading into Friday's always pivotal showdown against the Yankees.

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