- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
- 0 Shares
BOSTON -- It had been a long time since there was a Daisuke Matsuzaka moment like this at Fenway Park.
The 572nd consecutive sellout crowd of 37,609 rose to its feet and roared its approval following a 1-2-3 seventh inning in Tuesday night's 6-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays. The crowd knew Matsuzaka's night had come to an end, and that it had witnessed his best performance in recent memory.
This was a different Matsuzaka, a throwback of sorts.
"It was reminiscent of a number of games he pitched in '07," pitching coach John Farrell said, thinking back to Matsuzaka's first year in Boston when he rang up 201 strikeouts.
Consistently working ahead of Blue Jays hitters, Matsuzaka was in command throughout, firing seven strong innings, allowing just three hits and one earned run. He struck out nine and didn't walk a batter, with his fastball location the key.
No walks? It was the signature stat of the night, marking only the third time in Matsuzaka's Red Sox career that he pitched past the sixth inning and did not walk a batter.
The completeness from start to finish, and ability to avoid the bad inning, had manager Terry Francona smiling after his team improved to two games over .500 for the first time this season.
"I thought he was terrific," Francona said. "He was aggressive with his fastball, and he held it from the first inning through the seventh. He challenged hitters. He attacked hitters."
It was a significant change from Matsuzaka's first two starts since returning from injury (his ERA before the game was 9.90 through his first two starts), although Farrell saw signs that such a breakthrough might be on the horizon.
"The first in Baltimore, while the end result wasn't what he or any of us were intending or searching for, I think it was a very good building block for him in terms of the arm strength and the stuff he showed that night," Farrell said.
"The last time out against the Angels, while the first inning was rocky for him, he came away from that game with a win, and I think there was some gradual confidence being built along the way.
"Tonight, he put it all together. He established his fastball early, had success with it, and pitched off his fastball his entire night."
Matsuzaka's pitches had zip, topping out at 93 mph on the radar gun, according to Farrell.
His only real trouble came in the sixth when he briefly lost his rhythm, perhaps a result of a long bottom half of the fifth in which the Red Sox scored two runs and the Blue Jays made a pitching change.
He surrendered a leadoff double to catcher John Buck, then threw a wild pitch. Left fielder Fred Lewis cranked a one-out double off the left-field wall, but Matsuzaka settled down, escaping further damage against Toronto's No. 2 and 3 hitters by inducing an Aaron Hill foul out and then striking out Adam Lind swinging.
Overall, Matsuzaka was efficient with five 1-2-3 innings. He said it was as comfortable as he's felt with his fastball and that he focused on a simpler mental approach that kept him from overthinking things. He mixed in his slider, cutter and changeup, but it was the fastball that defined the performance.
It was one of Matsuzaka's best since 2007, and it came at an important time with Josh Beckett's injured back forcing him to miss his next start.
Given Matsuzaka's past inconsistency, it could turn out to be a tease. Or perhaps it's a sign of better things to come.
"In '08, I don't know that he had the consistent power that he showed tonight," Farrell said. "A lot of credit has to be given to the work that he's put in, the shape that he's gotten himself into, the core strength that he's improved upon in the last 12 months. He's put himself in position to repeat his delivery and generate the velocity that he had tonight and still command the baseball."
With 9 K's and 0 walks, Dice-K shows the command and confidence of '07.