06/17/08 2:02 AM ET
Dice-K impressive in rehab start
Red Sox righty rolls through first four innings for Pawtucket
By Nick Cammarota / MLB.com
Following a two-hour rain delay, the 27-year-old right-hander, who is expected to return to the Red Sox's rotation and start Saturday against the Cardinals, worked five innings against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. He allowed two earned runs on three hits, walked one, struck out five and threw 65 pitches, 47 for strikes.
The postgame grub was an added bonus.
Before his warmup tosses, Matsuzaka rotated his right arm in a windmill pattern, but said after his outing that he felt no discomfort and the arm rotation is a ritual he performs in every game.
PawSox manager Ron Johnson said he was on the phone with Boston management throughout the game to monitor Matsuzaka's progress, and the 6-foot, 200-pound hurler was on a five-inning, 75 to 80-pitch limit.
The majority of Matsuzaka's pitches were fastballs, but he mixed in a cutter, slider and changeup as well.
"There were a few things that I wanted to try out when I was out there," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masafumi Hoshino. "One of those things was my fastball, and I feel like I was able to achieve that."
After throwing 39 pitches -- just eight for balls -- through the first four frames, the Red Sox's multi-million dollar investment, who was placed on the disabled list May 30 (retroactive to May 28) with a mild right rotator cuff strain, lost his pinpoint command in the fifth. IronPigs first baseman Andy Tracy got the first hit off Matsuzaka with a single to the right side, and right fielder Chris Snelling followed with a virtually identical hit.
"We had to take some pitches early on, and, obviously, he was throwing strikes right away," said Tracy, whose hit was on a first-pitch curveball. "When you do that on a guy like Dice-K, you're going to have to hit his pitch. You just can't miss pitches with a big-league guy like that."
After IronPigs catcher John Suomi flew out to left, third baseman Brennan King launched a 1-0 offering into the left-center-field gap. The ball one-hopped off the wall, scoring Tracy. Matsuzaka threw a wild pitch with a 2-2 count to the next hitter, Oscar Robles, allowing Snelling to score from third.
|"The biggest thing was that I was able to pitch today without any problems. I don't know exactly what percent, but I'm ready to throw."|
|-- Daisuke Matsuzaka|
The first four frames were a different story as Dice-K kept hitters off-balance, coupling a heater that touched the low-90s with breaking balls that dipped below 80, and didn't toss more than two pitches outside the strike zone to any of the first 12 batters.
"I was worried he wasn't going to throw enough pitches," Johnson said. "That fifth inning was probably a good thing because he got to throw some pitches."
Matsuzaka (8-0 with a 2.53 ERA) worked a perfect first, needing seven pitches to retire the side. Leadoff hitter Brandon Watson shattered his bat on an outside pitch, dribbling the ball in front of home plate. The barrel flew toward the mound, but Matsuzaka was moving to his right to field the ball and easily avoided the flying lumber to throw Watson out.
The meat of Lehigh Valley's order stood no chance in the second, as Matsuzaka struck out the side. His fastest heat reached 91 mph in an inning where he threw 11 pitches, nine for strikes. Matsuzaka worked a perfect third as well, with only one ball looking like it could be a hit off the bat -- a blooper by Robles that PawSox shortstop Jed Lowrie tracked down in shallow center field.
"His command was really good," Johnson said. "He threw strikes, he was in the zone early in the ballgame. He made some really quality pitches as far as locating his fastball and getting up underneath swings."
Watson was the first IronPig to reach base against Matsuzaka after topping a soft grounder to short to lead off the fourth. Lowrie fielded it cleanly but skipped the throw to first, allowing Watson to reach on an error. Dice-K caught the next batter, Rich Thompson, looking and faced the minimum through four after Watson was caught stealing second.
Though rain wasn't falling by the game's scheduled 7:05 p.m. ET start time, Lehigh Valley decided to delay the first pitch due to a threatening system looming less than an hour away. The thundershowers passed, and the move saved the Red Sox from having Matsuzaka's rehab start shortened or washed out, as well as having him pitch in dangerous conditions.
"I really want to tip my hat to the people in Lehigh, because they did a phenomenal job to put us in the best situation to play nine innings tonight," Johnson said. "It was exciting, too, because very few times in the Minor Leagues can you have a two-hour rain delay and have the stands be packed, and they were packed, so it was fun. I enjoyed it."
The Red Sox, who began a three-game series against the Phillies an hour away from Coca-Cola Park, made sure Matsuzaka was comfortable in what is expected to be his only rehab assignment. Assistant athletic trainer Masai Takahashi and massage therapist Takanori Maeda made the trip from Philadelphia to Allentown to accommodate Matsuzaka's needs.
"I had a great time out there today," Matsuzaka said. "A lot of the guys I met during Spring Training and I saw some familiar faces. It was fun being around the guys in the clubhouse as well.
"The biggest thing was that I was able to pitch today without any problems," he added. "I don't know exactly what percent, but I'm ready to throw."
Nick Cammarota is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.