Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Monday, October 15, 2007

MATSUZAKA'S MELTDOWN

Just as he did in his ALDS start against Anaheim (in which gave up three runs on seven hits and three walks), Daisuke Matsuzaka once again lasted just 4 2/3 innings in a playoff start. This time, the Japanese righty allowed eight base runners (six hits and two walks) against the Indians, resulting in four earned runs.

This season Matsuzaka threw an average of 108.7 pitches per start -- the most in baseball. And on Monday night, a high pitch count did him in once again. Though he struck out six batters, Dice-K threw 101 pitches and only 59 were strikes. On numerous occasions he fell behind Cleveland hitters and had three-ball counts too often to be successful. That pushed up his pitch count and lead to his early exit.

Dice-K has a tendency to nibble at the corners too much and look for help from the umpire. He doesn't seem to trust his defense enough to simply throw strikes. Instead, he tries to get big league hitters to chase pitches outside the strike zone. That may have worked early in the season when batters were unfamiliar with him and there was a sense of awe surrounding the Japanese legend. That sense of awe is now gone as hitters have figured him out. Teams have scouting reports on Matsuzaka and know his tendencies. Rather than chase pitches and take the bait on the corners, batters now dare him to throw strikes. And too often he doesn't, or can't.

On the other hand, the overlooked, under-appreciated Jake Westbrook threw a nasty sinkerball for nearly seven innings and stymied the Red Sox. Westbrook got 14 of his 19 outs on groundballs and induced three double plays on soft infield rollers. Before exiting he'd allowed two runs on seven hits and three walks.

Considering the Red Sox' $103 million investment, Matsuzaka was no bargain this year and certainly failed to live up to the enormous hype that preceded his arrival. Perhaps it was inevitable. Before he threw a single pitch in the majors, the recently turned 27-year-old was billed as the "next big thing" -- another Pedro in the making. That's yet to be determined, but the early returns aren't great.

His 15 wins, while impressive for a rookie, were matched by 12 losses. And then there is the real concern; his 4.40 ERA. His season was marked by a series of contrasts, positives and negatives. On the one hand, he struck out 201 batters in 204 2/3 innings. On the other, he allowed 191 hits and 80 walks; that amounts to a staggering 271 baserunners in those 204 2/3 innings. No matter how you slice it, that's not good. It's a problem that needs fixin'.

Last year, Josh Beckett, now the bona fide staff ace, had a similarly disappointing season. In his first season in the AL, Beckett went 16-11 with a 5.01 ERA. Other than the bloated ERA, another concern was the 36 homers he allowed. But this year Beckett more than halved that number, while dropping his ERA to an impressive 3.27. As a further indication of his evolution as an elite AL pitcher, Beckett also cut his walks nearly in half from 74 to 40, and increased his strike out total from 158 to 194.

The moral of the story is that one season is too small a sample to gauge a young pitcher, especially one like Matsuzaka who is not just coming from another league, but another nation with a vastly different culture. Perhaps Dice-K can reinvent himself in the same way that Josh Beckett did this year.

But it would be nice if he found a way to do it before next season. The Red Sox don't have that long to wait. Now down two games to one to the Indians, the Sox need help fast and they need it now.

Matsuzaka may not be done yet. If the Sox are able to find a way to come back and beat Cleveland, it will take better pitching. And it will also mean another playoff start -- in fact a World Series start -- for Dice-K on an even bigger stage. But that's what he was brought to Boston for in the first place; he had a big game resume that said he could be counted on in the big games.

That's a lot of ifs and maybes, but Dice-K still has a chance to play the hero, earn his millions, and live up to all that ridiculous hype before the 2007 season is in the record books.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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