Dice-K flirts with no-no in victory over Phils
Japanese right-hander loses bid with two outs in eighth frame
PHILADELPHIA -- There were hints of no-hit magic in the Citizen's Bank air for Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Red Sox on Saturday night. It was hard not to take notice when Matsuzaka somehow snared a laser by Jayson Werth in the bottom of the seventh, which Jason Varitek thought was the hardest batted ball he's ever seen a pitcher catch.
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And then in the eighth, there was another vicious liner off the bat of Carlos Ruiz that third baseman Adrian Beltre dove and caught, and fired to first to double off Raul Ibanez.
At that point, Matsuzaka was just four outs from a no-hitter against the Phillies, and it felt like the stars were starting to align and Matsuzaka just might accomplish that lofty feat.
But then, the game of baseball just showed how mystifying it can be at times, as Juan Castro blooped one just over the glove of Red Sox shortstop Marco Scutaro and into short left field, ending Matsuzaka's bid at a no-no with two outs in the eighth. However, it could not stop the Red Sox from a satisfying 5-0 victory over the Phillies.
"I was just watching it, and I couldn't tell whether we were going to catch it or whether it was going to fall in," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "When I saw it fall in, that was pretty much it. I was a little bit disappointed but I didn't let it drag on and I moved on to focus on the next hitter."
The next hitter was Ross Gload, and Matsuzaka got him on a flyout to right to end one of the best nights of his career.
Over eight innings, Dice-K allowed just the one hit, walking four, striking out five and throwing 112 pitches.
Varitek already has a Major League record by catching four no-hitters. He came oh-so-close to a fifth.
"He had some favors, so some momentum was building and the softest one of them all fell," said Varitek. "You know, most important we got a win. He did a good job and got a quality start. We were able to capitalize on it."
There have been plenty of times that Matsuzaka has struggled to live up to all the hype that has been bestowed upon him since coming to America in 2007. Saturday was not one of those occasions.
"If I was six feet, I'd probably get it," Scutaro said of the soft drive he couldn't quite catch up to. "I'm [Dustin] Pedroia's size, so [I couldn't]."
Off the bat, Scutaro thought he had a shot.
"Yeah, I did," Scutaro said. "What can I say? I know all the country of Japan is hating me right now. Sorry, sorry. My bad, my bad."
But Red Sox Nation is feeling pretty good about what Matsuzaka accomplished, particularly if it's a sign he's about to get locked in. It was the second time in Matsuzaka's past three starts that he has been dominant. Two starts ago against the Blue Jays, he allowed three hits and a run over seven innings, walking none and striking out nine. Of course, sandwiched in between was a highly frustrating night in New York, when he gave up five runs in the first inning.
"Yes, I've been going from one extreme to the other, but of course, I want to keep going in a good way like tonight," Matsuzaka said. "On a good night like tonight, I'm able to pitch like I imagine and the pitches come out of my hand just like I picture. Without over-thinking it too much, I just hope I can keep going in that direction."
So, too, do the Red Sox, because a consistently effective Matsuzaka could make them a more dangerous team.
"From the very beginning, you could see it," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He got in a rhythm. He got it, he threw it -- that's the best fastball we've seen. He established that. Then his slider, and he threw some of the better changeups we've seen. We made some defensive plays behind him. That was fun to watch."
Matsuzaka was a star pitcher for the Seibu Lions of Japan before the Red Sox won negotiating rights for his services by making a blind bid of $51.1 million in Nov. 2006. The Red Sox then signed Matsuzaka to a six-year, $52 million contract a month later, creating an instant buzz. Matsuzaka never threw a no-hitter during his time with the Lions, which started in 1999 and ended in '06.
In Matsuzaka's first year with the Red Sox, he won 15 games and also recorded victories in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and Game 3 of the World Series. In 2008, he went 18-3 and finished fourth in the American League's Cy Young Award voting.
But last year was almost a complete loss, thanks to ineffectiveness and two stints on the disabled list. And this year didn't start much better, with another DL stint (back and neck woes in Spring Training) and glaringly bad innings in three of his first four starts.
"I think that, you look at all five [starts], I know you can't have a mulligan inning, but I think we can maybe look at the linescore and over-analyze," Francona said. "There's been a lot of good. So you try to fix what's not good and go on. He's actually had three innings where he's given up a lot of runs. Other than that, he's been pretty good."
The Red Sox didn't have any no-hitters between 1966-2000. But Hideo Nomo ended that drought on April 4, 2001, at Camden Yards against the Orioles. Derek Lowe then reeled off a no-no against Tampa Bay on April 27, 2002. Clay Buchholz fired a no-hitter in his second Major League start, which came on Sept. 1, 2007, against the Orioles. And Jon Lester threw the most recent no-hitter by a Red Sox pitcher on May 19, 2008, against the Royals.
On a night Matsuzaka was brilliant, the Red Sox gave him enough offense to work with. Boston pushed its first run across in the fourth inning, when Jeremy Hermida hit a sacrifice fly to medium-depth left field. A hustling David Ortiz slid in just ahead of the tag by catcher Ruiz to break the scoreless tie.
In the fifth, Boston kept the pressure on Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick. Scutaro started it with a double down the line in left. Matsuzaka, who singled in his first at-bat, helped his own cause again with a sacrifice bunt.
"Since I've started playing professional baseball, the only time I got to hit was in Interleague -- in Japan as well," Matsuzaka said. "But it was the first time I was able to lay down a sac bunt. In the end, it led to a run and I'm very happy about that."
After his bunt, Jacoby Ellsbury drew a walk. With two outs, J.D. Drew dropped in an RBI single to left. Ortiz followed by hammering an RBI double down the line in right. Beltre shot one to the gap in right-center, good for a two-run double that made it 5-0.
"That spreads it out for us which is great," Francona said. "That makes watching Dice-K, not relaxing, but you've got a few runs and it makes it a little more fun to watch."
Matsuzaka was having a grand old time, particularly when he made that brilliant stab in the seventh.
"I saw the ball so I put my glove out but I didn't actually think I was going to make the catch," Matsuzaka said. "I think it was at that point that my teammates started thinking that maybe I had a chance tonight."
But Castro spoiled the party.
"He was throwing a [heck] of a game," Castro said. "I was just trying to make contact. I wasn't really looking to hit the ball the other way or middle or pull. I was just trying to make some contact."
He made just enough, but it didn't spoil the night for the Red Sox. After all, they accomplished their primary objective.
"Everyone is excited," Francona said. "But we're playing a good team and we've got a lead. Again, it's fun to be involved in something like that, but we need to just go win. It certainly keeps your attention, but [losing the no-hitter] it doesn't take away from his effort."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.