- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- With a total of three minor league rehab starts complete since undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery last June, pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka is a step closer to returning to the Boston Red Sox.
The right-hander worked 4 2/3 scoreless innings and allowed only two hits with three walks and four strikeouts for the Pawtucket Red Sox on Monday night at McCoy Stadium. He tossed a total of 87 pitches (49 strikes), topping out at 91 mph on the radar gun. When he left the game against the Rochester Red Wings, the score was still 0-0.
Matsuzaka is on schedule to have a bullpen session on Wednesday and to start again on Saturday against Columbus at McCoy Stadium. He likely will need two more rehab starts before joining the Red Sox.
"Overall, my body feels good, so that's fine, but my elbow, depending on the day -- some days it feels better than others," Matsuzaka said through an interpreter. "Right now, I'm hoping when I start, it hits the day I'm feeling good. Regarding being ready in two more games, it's hard to say because it's a step-by-step process, a game-by-game process. I'll just go see how I pitch my next outing and see how that goes and see where I stand then."
Matsuzaka began his rehab assignment on April 23, and has 30 days from then before he has to return to the big league club.
With the Red Sox starting rotation in desperate need of help, Matsuzaka could be considered a savior of sorts.
"If I could contribute to the team now, of course I would like to be up there," Matsuzaka said. "The best way for me to contribute to the team is to get as close to 100 percent as I can. I just need to get myself to that point in order for me to contribute the most to the team."
At the start of spring training, Matsuzaka admitted he was ahead of schedule with his rehab. Normally it takes a pitcher 12 to 18 months to return from Tommy John surgery, but Matsuzaka appears to be on the verge of toeing a big league rubber again less than one year (June 10) from his procedure.
He began his rehab stint on April 23 at Single-A Salem and allowed three runs on six hits in four innings of work. His next start came on April 28 for Double-A Portland where he worked 4 2/3 innings and allowed one run on three hits with two walks and seven strikeouts.
After his last start for the Sea Dogs, Matsuzaka experienced a stiff neck but he admitted after Monday's outing that there's no cause for concern.
"It came from right after my last start and because of all the travel by car, all the flights, caused my back to tighten up a little bit and it came up to my neck, but after treatment for about three days with the trainers I felt a lot better and there's nothing to be concerned with," he said.
At approximately 3:30 p.m. on Monday, a pair of dark-colored SUVs carrying Matsuzaka and his entourage pulled into the parking lot at McCoy Stadium. The right-hander appeared jovial in the clubhouse and was ready for his third rehab start.
"My mechanics still need work," he said after his outing. "It's not perfect, yet, so I'll be making minor adjustments as I go along. Today, I didn't discuss with the catcher what kind of pitches I wanted to work on but I ended up throwing a lot of two-seams and it ended up being a good practice for that pitch.
"I knew I was throwing a lot of off-speed pitches and that's what I wanted to do. That's why I was shaking the catcher off a few times. Overall, it was great and ended up being a lot of fun. I was able to work on what I wanted to work on. I'm planning on throwing a lot more fastballs next time."
He's never completely lived up to the expectations of what the Red Sox were hoping to get when they signed the Japanese superstar for a total purchase price of $103 million prior to the 2007 season.
The majority of Matsuzaka's wins came in his first two seasons in Boston when he posted a 33-15 record in 61 starts. He made only 12 starts (4-6) in 2009 because of a slew of injuries, and he continued that pattern in 2010, when he was 9-6 in 25 starts. He pitched only eight games (seven starts) in 2011 and posted a 3-3 record with a 5.30 ERA before he was shut down in May and finally had surgery in June.
Along with injuries, Matsuzaka's inconsistency became a major issue even before his surgery. He hasn't been consistently good since 2008, and there have been too many questions than answers when he pitched.
For a pitcher who seemed like a castoff, the Red Sox need a healthy and productive Matsuzaka right now.
Daisuke Matsuzaka had a strong outing Monday night as he continued his march back to the majors from Tommy John surgery, though he says he's still having rough days with his surgically-repaired right elbow.