Welcome to Sox-Yanks, Dice-K
Matsuzaka a quick study in game's most-heated rivalry
BOSTON -- The calendar again lied, just like the people who had been warning Daisuke Matsuzaka for five months to prepare for the Yankees-Red Sox conflict had lied.The game is played at a higher level, they said. They didn't say anything about it turning into a Kurosawa movie. But there it was Sunday night, in all its splendor and fallen and heroic characters, right down to the inevitable ultimate showdown between Jonathan Papelbon and Alex Rodriguez. Good and Evil. Assign those qualities as you wish, depending on whose side you are on. Pap retired A-Rod on 287 mph-worth of three fastballs, the last bounced into a force, to nail down Boston's first Fenway Park sweep of the Yankees since 1990 with the 7-6 victory. And Matsuzaka was right in the middle of the drama, persevering and surviving, and winning, and in the aftermath just exhaling. "The opportunity to pitch against such a talented lineup is a treat for any pitcher ... but no way can I be satisfied," Dice-K said. "Four consecutive home runs ... I've never even heard of such a thing. "Seeing that, it was all I could do to hold my own excitement." Matsuzaka couldn't hold the 4-3 lead produced on that historic 10-pitch sequence in the third, but it didn't matter. Mike Lowell reclaimed it for him, to pay off his entire lineup's debt. "I'm happy we scored enough for him, because the last two, we didn't provide him any runs," Lowell, who'd also contributed to the four-blast salute, said of Matsuzaka's 3-0 and 2-1 losses. Lowell contemplated Matsuzaka's reaction to his first New York exposure and, looking across the language gap, simply said, "He gets it." We all got it Sunday night, because we had it coming. Despite typical attempts to diffuse the intensity or lower the wattage. Terry Francona had dismissed it as "April baseball." Joe Torre had shrugged it off as "Yankees and Red Sox" routine business, if there is such a thing. Right.
That's why we saw Andy Pettitte trot in from the bullpen in the bottom of the sixth. That's why we saw Wil Nieves stay behind the plate after a thumb dislocation so grotesque, Rodriguez turned away from it in disgust. That's why the customary street fair was absent from Yawkey Way, vacant by the eighth with 36,905 fans inside the church, glued to their seats.As if these two clans could get together for anything at anytime without pulses and minds racing. They could get worked up over bingo -- especially if Dice-K is calling out the numbers. The calendar said "Long way," but they played on the diamond, where every bone in their bodies said, "Must have." That was definitely the message from Dice-K. "I wanted this game very badly," said the right-hander through his interpreter, dropping any same-as-any-other-game pretense. "I wanted to get my first win at Fenway. "But the opportunity to beat the Yankees, after my team had already defeated them twice, made me want to win even more." The very first time Dice-K delivered to Rodriguez, his pitch caromed off his left forearm. Derek Jeter got the same treatment in the third: First pitch, off the left shoulder. If they loved Matsuzaka before, they absolutely swooned over those. They were the equivalent of taking the Red Sox Nation citizenship blood oath. Citizen Dice-K did not plead that the pitches "got away from me." Nor did he imply there was anything intentional about them. He did, however, confirm the heart of a lion -- an observant lion. "When you face such a hot and talented batter," said Matsuzaka, speaking specifically of Rodriguez, "you want to pitch inside. Watching our pitchers the last two days, I didn't think they pitched inside enough (as Rodriguez went 5-for-8 in the two games). "So I was very conscious of pitching him inside. Of course, hitting him was purely an accident." Having only roughed him up (matching the six total runs he had allowed in his first three starts), not beaten him, the Yankees were gracious in their first impressions of Matsuzaka. Former Boston first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz was most effusive, comparing him to Pedro Martinez. "One time, his fastball is 93, one time it's 95, one time it's 90," Mientkiewicz said. "Then, all of a sudden, same arm speed and it's 80. I try to compare it to Pedro when he was here. It's pretty good." Jeter, who clocked the fifth-inning leadoff homer that briefly tied the score at 5, said Matsuzaka "did what they needed him to do, keep the game close. He has a great offense there that's going to score a lot of runs."
Trying to stem that gusher, given that young starter Chase Wright needed help by the fourth, Torre exploited Pettitte's "throw" day by having him do it in the game.In truth, Pettitte had also thrown an inning of relief against the Orioles on April 8, another of his days to throw between starts. But he certainly had a greater objective than working up a sweat when he entered this game. Game? Don't think so. The term implies some frivolity, and there is nothing frivolous about business between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Readers who don't dwell in the Northeast should realize this indeed is Holy War, with room for neither levity nor tolerance. The Athenians and Spartans, and the Aztecs and the Mayans, may have done it better, but with no harder feelings. So the Red Sox took the opening match in straight sets -- 7-6, 7-5, 7-6 -- to get the jump in the festivities that will resume Friday night in Yankee Stadium. Only certainty: People on both sides of the Mussina-Dice-K Line will make more of this than deserved. For the Yankees, it's a tad premature to talk about a fading fall, since even summer is still two months away. And that five-game lead (over New York; second-place Baltimore is only a length-and-a-half behind) for the Red Sox is about as secure as a sandcastle at high tide.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.