Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Updated: September 19, 10:58 PM ET
Something to prove
By Amy K. Nelson
BOSTON -- When Daisuke Matsuzaka left the Red Sox after last season and went home to Japan, he was handed an offseason workout plan. Like each player on the team, Matsuzaka was expected to follow his exercises so that when the season started, his body would be in shape.
Much to Red Sox officials' ire, that didn't happen this past winter. When they saw Matsuzaka pitching in the World Baseball Classic with a chubbier face and more weight on his frame, it added to a growing internal frustration that their international investment did whatever he wanted, however he wanted.
But on Tuesday night, amid a contentious summer of setbacks, public quarrels and isolation in the depths of Fort Myers, Fla., Matsuzaka made a stunning comeback, his first major league start since June 19. He pitched six scoreless innings, allowed three hits, struck out five and walked three in a 4-1 win over the Angels.
"I've been a burden on my teammates," Matsuzaka said, "more than anything, I feel that I owe them."
Always known as a nibbler who would rather pitch around the black than go after hitters, Matsuzaka morphed into an aggressive gunslinger Tuesday night. His approach against a patient team was to throw fastballs and more fastballs, and it took the Angels by surprise.
"He came after guys," said Angels outfielder Torii Hunter. "He used his fastball in and out of the zone; he had his cutter working today. He did really good for a guy who hasn't pitched since June 19.
"It shocked all of us."
That includes the Red Sox, who nearly two months ago had a public war of words with their pitcher. Frustrated by his work ethic and his 8.23 ERA, the Red Sox placed Matsuzaka on the disabled list on June 21 with a sore shoulder. He was sent to Florida with a strict conditioning program, which included getting his core in shape.
Matsuzaka's stay in Fort Myers was uneventful until he gave a Japanese reporter an interview in which he blasted the Red Sox and how they were managing him.
"If I'm forced to continue to train in this environment, I may no longer be able to pitch like I did in Japan," Matsuzaka said. "The only reason why I managed to win games during the first and second years (with the Sox) was because I used the savings of the shoulder I built up in Japan. Since I came to the major leagues, I couldn't train in my own way, so now I've lost all those savings."
It was insulting to just about everyone in the organization, and very few held back once his comments became public. Pitching coach John Farrell said Matsuzaka was airing "dirty laundry"; manager Terry Francona -- the epitome of a players' manager -- called his star pitcher out; and teammates not only didn't defend him but questioned his motivations.
"In the past, Daisuke has somewhat been his own coach, and we understand that," Francona lamented.
It was ugly, and there were questions about whether Matsuzaka's time with the Red Sox was over (which wasn't logical; he's under their control for three more years, and his value was at an all-time low).
Team officials were not happy, particularly once they saw that Matsuzaka had not shown up in shape with Team Japan for the World Baseball Classic. Matsuzaka was the tournament MVP, but officials thought he was mostly it doing on the emotion and adrenaline of the competition, that his out-of-shape body was unprepared for the violence the WBC wrought on his arm and shoulder.
The miscommunication has forced the Red Sox to develop a better plan of communicating with their players, in particular Matsuzaka, who one team official said has always been the most difficult to reach. Once both sides smoothed out the hurt feelings and confusion, Matsuzaka bore down. He worked aggressively to get in better shape, and Farrell said his fastball -- with the life it had Tuesday night -- was a byproduct of the physical work he has done.
|Daisuke Matsuzaka fooled the Angels by attacking the strike zone instead of nibbling at the corners.|
"There was a foundation that needed to be re-established from a physical standpoint," Farrell said. "Once that was built, we didn't have as much reservation, in terms of workloads, pitch counts, the things that were somewhat controversial last year."
Angels third baseman Chone Figgins drew two of the three walks Matsuzaka issued. Going into the game, Figgins wasn't sure what to anticipate.
"He did it all night to us, he battled back," Figgins said. "He ended up making some [big] pitches and, from what I know or have seen in the past, that's the way he pitches."
The Red Sox called it a big step for Matsuzaka and a lift for the team. Jason Varitek, who caught Matsuzaka, said his recent history has been overlooked.
"It was nice to see for him, and everybody forgets this guy won 18 games for us last year," Varitek said.
For Matsuzaka, it was the first step in redeeming himself.
"There's not much left in the season," Matsuzaka said. "But in the limited time and the limited opportunity that I do have, I want to show my appreciation to my teammates and the fans by contributing in a positive way."
Along with the weekend sweep in which Boston's top three starters all pitched very well, the pitching staff has combined for a 0.84 ERA in the past four games. And on Tuesday, a healthy, happy Matsuzaka returned, seemingly on a mission with something to prove. For this team, there could be no better news.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com and ESPNBoston.com. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at twitter.com/amyknelson.
I've been a burden on my teammates, more than anything, I feel that I owe them.
-- Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka