10/11/08 2:40 AM ET
Matsuzaka mastering art of the escape
In typical fashion, Sox righty creates, and works out of, trouble
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
"When you're playing behind him in those kinds of situations, you think to yourself, 'He's done it all year, so why not now?'" the second baseman said.
Long before Matsuzaka took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of Friday's 2-0 Red Sox win, the storm clouds of a short American League Championship Series-opening effort had started to gather. Walking the bases loaded before he escaped a 27-pitch first inning, Matsuzaka then dodged a first-and-third situation in the seventh inning by recording three straight outs.
It was Dice-K's night to shine, in the format that has unmistakably become his own. The Red Sox would certainly prefer he limit baserunners and avoid those stressful spots altogether, but Matsuzaka continues to excel when the pressure is on -- for reasons even he can't decipher.
"I'm not really sure myself," Matsuzaka said through an interpreter. "But it just turns out that I've been able to hold the runners with the bases loaded, and even when I've allowed runners on through walks, I've just been able to hold them there."
Some might have wondered if Matsuzaka would even get out of the messy first inning, having issued a trio of walks, to Akinori Iwamura, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford.
But with a sellout crowd of fans that sported blue Mohawks and "Beat Boston" T-shirts while raising the decibel level, chanting along with the flickering lights of the Tropicana Field catwalks, Matsuzaka jammed Cliff Floyd to make him roll over on a momentum-killing ground ball to second base, ending the inning.
Rockin' on the road
"Again, he had a little bit of a high-wire act in the first inning, but I guess -- what do they say, 'Go with what got you here?'" Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "As he got into the middle of the game, he really threw the ball well, got into a good groove, and the ball had a lot of life through the strike zone."
The missed opportunity for the Rays continued an impressive trend for Matsuzaka, who held opponents hitless in 14 bases-loaded at-bats during the regular season.
"We've seen it all year," pitching coach John Farrell said. "He's a tremendous competitor, and I think that's the only way to sum it up. He doesn't panic and he doesn't try to do anything extra. There are times that it's caused him to run some pitch counts up, but at the same time, he's accustomed to pitching with men on base."
Matsuzaka never fretted, but he did break a sweat -- warming up after that troublesome first inning, the right-hander held the Rays to just one baserunner until Crawford ended Matsuzaka's no-hit bid leading off the seventh inning. The crowd, out by out, lowered their cowbells, as Matsuzaka clocked into cruise control.
"He settled in and got comfortable," Pedroia said. "Once Dice does that, he's dominant. Even when he gets runners on, he finds a way to get out of it. He gets a lot of swings and misses and weird swings on him. We've dealt with that since he's been here, and that's how he's been successful. I don't think anybody is trying to change that."
But there were adjustments. Floyd said that after the first few innings, Matsuzaka tossed in a bit of a new wrinkle, keeping the Rays guessing.
"He got away from his norm -- he usually pitches backwards," Floyd said. "He usually throws his offspeed stuff, walks a few guys and gets himself in trouble. You don't sneak up on 18 wins, so he's doing something right.
"Sometimes, you've got to tip your hat, as much as you hate to. As much as you want to be sick to your stomach for a minute, you've got to tip your hat sometimes and know that he's trying to do the same thing you're trying to do."
That seventh frame, with the Red Sox clinging to a one-run lead, created a walk-free jam for Matsuzaka. Crawford moved to third when Floyd laced a double up the gap in left-center field, putting runners at the corners with no outs.
Hoping for a strikeout or a short fly ball and prepared to give up a run if need be, Matsuzaka induced Dioner Navarro into the latter, too shallow for Crawford to tag up. Matsuzaka then looked for a double play and settled for a swinging strikeout of Gabe Gross, then got Jason Bartlett to bounce to shortstop, averting the crisis once more.
"It's amazing," Kevin Youkilis said. "We always joke how he gets out of these innings. We wish he wouldn't put himself in those jams, but it's amazing how he does it. That shows how great of a pitcher he is."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.