Put Matsuzaka in the midst of what should be a daunting jam and the man buckles down and goes to work. In Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, Matsuzaka's gift for navigating through trouble helped lift the Red Sox to a tense 2-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on Friday night.
Then again, it isn't just Matsuzaka who is resourceful when things get sticky. For the Red Sox, who are trying to become the first team to repeat as World Series champions since the 2000 Yankees, pressure is what they thrive on.
Just like in the AL Division Series against the Angels, the Red Sox opened by silencing their opponent, and as a result in this case, the clanging cowbells and the Tropicana Field crowd.
Aside from the brilliant work of their starter, the Red Sox got six big outs from their bullpen and a clutch RBI double in the eighth by Kevin Youkilis that provided some breathing room. Jonathan Papelbon finished off the Rays with a scoreless ninth, allowing him to break Joe Niekro's record (20) for most career postseason innings (20 2/3) without a run.
"We're kind of used to playing in these games," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. "When we played in the regular season against the Yankees or these guys, it's this type of feeling. We're kind of used to it. Nobody panics."
Certainly not Matsuzaka.
In what was easily the best postseason performance of Matsuzaka's two-year run with the Red Sox (seven-plus innings, four hits, four walks, nine strikeouts), he had a no-hitter through six, only for Carl Crawford to open the seventh with a clean single to right.
Rockin' on the road
"He just continues to make pitches when he has to," said Red Sox shortstop Jed Lowrie, who broke the scoreless tie with a sacrifice fly in the fifth. "He gets himself into some tough spots and gets himself out of it. It's pretty fun to play behind him. A little nerve-wracking, but it's pretty fun to watch."
It was a sweet win for the Red Sox, opening the best-of-seven series by stealing one on the road at a venue they went 1-8 at during the regular season.
"This is my first postseason, but it just seems like you can throw all the regular-season stats out the window," said Lowrie. "It's just a different atmosphere and a whole different game during the playoffs. Like I said earlier, to get a win on the road in the opening game is huge."
Ortiz, who knows a thing or two about the pressure of October, sensed a different look from the Rays than what he saw in the regular season. Tampa Bay beat Boston by two games in the AL East, and won the head-to-head series, 10-8.
"I saw faces tonight different than what I [saw] in the regular season," Ortiz said in reference to the Rays. "I don't blame nobody. There's a lot of pressure right now in this game, because you know, you have to win, otherwise you go home. That relaxed kind of type of thing that you have during the regular season, it wasn't out there tonight."
GAME 2: JUST THE FACTS
|Red Sox starter: RHP Josh Beckett|
|2008: 12-10, 4.03 ERA|
|2008 on the road: 7-5, 2.85 ERA|
|2008 vs. Rays: 2-1, 2.06 ERA|
|Career vs. Rays: 5-3, 3.10 ERA|
|2008 postseason: 0-0, 7.20 ERA|
|Career postseason: 2-3, 3.51 ERA (10 games, eight starts)|
|Career postseason: 6-2, 2.09 ERA|
|Rays starter: LHP Scott Kazmir|
|2008: 12-8, 3.49 ERA|
|2008 at home: 8-2, 2.90 ERA|
|2008 vs. Red Sox: 0-2, 9.00 ERA|
|Career vs. Red Sox: 6-7, 3.62 ERA|
|2008 postseason: 1-0, 3.38 ERA|
|Career postseason: 1-0, 3.38 ERA|
|Red Sox lead series, 1-0. Red Sox lead series, 1-0. Twenty-three of the previous 38 teams to win the first game of the ALCS have gone on to take the series. However, just 12 of 22 teams have done so since the LCS went to a best-of-7 format in 1985.|
|Game 1: Red Sox 2, Rays 0|
|Did You Know? The Red Sox have won their last six postseason road games since dropping Game 4 of last year's ALCS at Cleveland. It's the longest road winning streak in the postseason since the Yankees won six straight from the 2000 World Series through the first two games of the 2001 ALCS.|
In other words, were the Rays tight?
"I don't know if they were tight," Ortiz said. "You know, that one situation when you come with men on base and you get that hit or you get that run in that you saw all year round from those guys where they'd say, 'OK, we're down one run or two runs, we're going to get it done.' It wasn't out there tonight. I don't think we saw that. This is their first time in the playoffs. Those guys, they've been doing a [heck] of a job this season. But this is a totally different feeling."
For Matsuzaka, on the other hand, it seemed so similar to many of his 29 starts during the regular season, amid which he dodged trouble to the tune of an 18-3 record with a 2.90 ERA.
After Crawford snapped Matsuzaka's no-hit bid to lead off the seventh, Cliff Floyd followed with a single into left-center, setting up first and third with nobody out.
But Matsuzaka got Dioner Navarro on a shallow fly to left, struck out Gabe Gross on a nasty sinking fastball and induced Jason Bartlett into a grounder to short to end the threat.
"The way our infield was set up, we were prepared to give up the run for a couple of outs," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "But I certainly didn't want to let any runs score."
In the first inning, Matsuzaka had loaded the bases on three walks, but he also wiggled out of that one.
"He gives himself a lot of opportunities, but he doesn't give in," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He throws all his pitches, so hitters have to respect them. Even in tight situations, he doesn't become a one-pitch pitcher."
After a quiet and frustrating night offensively against Rays righty James Shields, the Red Sox at last produced some insurance against the Tampa Bay bullpen in the eighth. After Dustin Pedroia struck a one-out single against Shields, Rays manager Joe Maddon went to lefty J.P. Howell to face Ortiz.
|"We know how to deal with situations in the playoffs. Pretty much young players, veteran players, everyone around here knows how to deal with it."|
|-- David Ortiz|
That resulted in a walk. Youkilis came up with the big hit, an RBI double to left that Crawford made a diving attempt at, only to see it glance off his glove and roll past him. Finally, the Red Sox could breathe, if only slightly, at 2-0.
"I saw the ball pretty good today," said Youkilis, who also doubled in the first. "I got a curveball and stayed in the zone and capitalized. He's a tough pitcher to face. He's one of those guys that's going to get you out a lot. You've just got to go up there and battle and grind it out."
Once the insurance run came across, it was decision time for Francona. Though Matsuzaka had thrown 107 pitches through seven, Francona went back to him in the eighth.
That backfired, as Akinori Iwamura led off with a single to left and B.J. Upton hit a rocket to third that Youkilis couldn't make a play on for an infield single.
Francona then went to lefty Hideki Okajima. Carlos Pena, the power-hitting first baseman, swung at a 3-0 pitch and flew out to right, with J.D. Drew hustling in to make the catch. Again, the Red Sox went to the bullpen, this time calling on rookie Justin Masterson. The sinkerballer did what he does best, getting Evan Longoria on an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play that had to deflate the Rays.
"We know how to deal with situations in the playoffs," Ortiz said. "Pretty much young players, veteran players, everyone around here knows how to deal with it."
Silenced by Shields early, the Red Sox finally got something together in the fifth. Jason Bay led off with a walk and Mark Kotsay followed with the most fortuitous check swing the Red Sox have had all season. The excuse-me swing resulted in a blooper double to left, giving Boston runners at second and third with nobody out. Lowrie took advantage, lifting a sacrifice fly to right to bring home the first run of the game.
"I got lucky," Kotsay said. "I took a check swing, and the ball found some outfield grass and turned into a double. That's part of the game. You can square a ball up and kind of get caught and run back to the dugout and feel sorry for yourself, and then take a check swing and get a double. It eventually led to a run."
And the Red Sox -- though it was anything but easy -- were on their way.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.