Dice-K tunes up for playoffs with victory

Dice-K tunes up for playoffs with victory

BOSTON -- Daisuke Matsuzaka was in a somewhat challenging spot when he re-entered the mix on Sept. 15, in that he had just four starts to prove he could be a weapon for the Red Sox in the postseason. But the right-hander somehow breezed through that crash course, capped by Friday night's 6-2 victory over the Indians at Fenway Park.

The new and improved Dice-K finished his regular season far better than he started it, limiting Cleveland to five hits and two runs over six innings. Matsuzaka walked three and struck out seven, throwing 104 pitches.

In his four-start return, Matsuzaka went 3-1 with a 2.22 ERA. Presumably, his next turn in the rotation will be in the American League Division Series against the Angels.

"Heading into the playoffs, I had four starts, and not just in my start today, but throughout those starts, I was able to work on points that I felt were going to be important going into the playoffs," said Matsuzaka through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "I'm not sure yet what my role will be during the playoffs, but I'm looking forward to them."

Not only was Matsuzaka spotting his fastball, but he had good command of his secondary stuff.

"He threw the ball well," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He had a good slider. I think every game he's pitched, it seemed like his slider has become not only maybe more consistent, but certainly more depth to it. It's the pitch that we've kind of been accustomed to enjoying to watch, and it was a pretty good pitch."

After Matsuzaka's exit, Billy Wagner came on to retire two batters in the seventh, marking the first time he's pitched on back-to-back days since joining the Red Sox.

"I think it's something you need to go through," said Wagner. "I think it puts their mind at ease. I felt strong all along. They wanted to play it cautious. We've got a deep bullpen, and they didn't want to sit there and feel like they had to use me more than they needed to. This was just, I think, peace of mind."

The only down note of the night for the Red Sox was the forced exit of shortstop Alex Gonzalez and backup outfielder Rocco Baldelli. Gonzalez was hit in the right wrist by a Kerry Wood pitch in the bottom of the eighth and will have X-rays on Saturday. A fluoroscan taken at Fenway Park was inconclusive.

Baldelli limped out of the game with a strained left hip flexor sustained while running down the first-base line in the fourth and was listed as day-to-day.

It was a game in which Boston never trailed. Jacoby Ellsbury created a run with his speed in the bottom of the first. He led off with a double, stole third and scored on catcher Kelly Shoppach's throwing error.

The Red Sox (93-67) had a much more methodical rally in the third. Jason Varitek led off with a double to center, Gonzalez was hit by a pitch and Ellsbury walked to load them up with nobody out. Dustin Pedroia got a run home on a sacrifice fly to center. Victor Martinez followed with an RBI single to right that was trapped by Shin-Soo Choo. After a walk by Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay drilled an RBI double to left and Boston had a 4-0 lead.

Matsuzaka breezed through the first four innings, but the Indians cracked into the deficit in the fifth. Luis Valbuena laced an RBI single up the middle. Trevor Crowe made it a 4-2 game on an RBI single to right. But when Jamey Carroll walked to load the bases, Matsuzaka had them right where he wanted. The right-hander struck out Choo swinging to extend an impressive streak. Opponents are 0-for-21 against Matsuzaka with the bases loaded over the past two seasons.

The fact that Matsuzaka can still wiggle out of those jams is proof to himself that he's just about made it all the way back.

"The most important thing point was being able to battle with runners on base, and I think that's my real strength," Matsuzaka said. "Being in a jam and being able to make the pitch I need to make, I was able to get a feel for that."

There would be more trouble for Dice-K to work out of in the sixth. With two on and two outs, he ended his outing by striking out Shoppach on a 92-mph fastball.

Of course, he will probably have a much tougher time escaping such trouble against the Angels.

"I knew [the Indians] had a young lineup and I knew that they were going to be aggressive to the fastball, and I think overall my command on my fastball wasn't that great today," Matsuzaka said. "If we didn't have any runs on the board, I probably would have taken a different approach, but I'm not disappointed in what happened in that inning."

While there were doubts of what Matsuzaka could bring once he returned, one of his staunchest believers was his catcher.

"There's a reason the guy won us 18 games last year," Varitek said. "He's been valuable. He's gone into the sixth or the seventh in each one of his outings. That's big. It gives us a chance to set up our bullpen."

And now Matsuzaka hopes he has set himself up for a nice postseason, something that probably seemed far-fetched when he went to the DL with a 1-5 record and a 8.23 ERA on June 21.

"From the time I came back to the point that we clinched our playoff spot, I wanted to do my best to contribute," Matsuzaka said. "But during the whole time I was on the DL, I trained with October in mind, so I still have some work to do."

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