- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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But playing .500 ball, as the Sox did on their trip through New York, Toronto and Texas, isn't going to cut it going forward. Boston opens a critical homestand on Tuesday, and to reach its goal of making the playoffs, it will rely heavily on its starting rotation -- not that that's a major revelation.
After several injuries to their staff, the Red Sox have all their starters on a normal rotation, and more importantly they're all healthy. For the Sox to make the playoffs, it will have to remain that way. So the onus is on Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka if the Sox are to earn a postseason berth.
"If everyone is able to pitch up to their ability, I think we have the best rotation, not just in the AL, but in all the major leagues," Matsuzaka said through an interpreter.
It had been awhile since Matsuzaka, making his 18th start of the season, suffered a loss -- June 30 to be exact -- and since that time he had posted a 3-0 record with four no-decisions.
The right-hander has been consistent and was able to keep it going against the Rangers on Sunday. Unfortunately, he suffered the loss. Matsuzaka worked 6⅔ innings and allowed four runs on seven hits with two walks and eight strikeouts, though he pitched better than the numbers indicate.
It was the sixth time in his past seven starts that Matsuzaka has worked at least six innings, and he also recorded his 500th career strikeout when he fanned the Rangers' Andres Blanco in the fifth inning.
Matsuzaka was the victim of the Rangers' ability to execute small ball in the second inning, leading to the first run of the game, and after Matsuzaka was removed with two on and two outs in the seventh, reliever Manny Delcarmen surrendered a three-run homer to Michael Young on his first pitch.
"I wish I had a rewind button," Delcarmen said afterward.
Despite the loss, Matsuzaka believes he's returning to form, though he still wants to improve.
"It's still tough to pitch well all the time," he said. "On a day like today when all my pitches aren't necessarily there, to be able to battle through that and pitch through that is a step in the right direction. Overall, I still feel there's room for improvement."
Matsuzaka wasn't pleased with his fastball and cutter early in the game, but knew he had a good feel for his breaking pitches, so he and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia went with what was working. Matsuzaka said it was the best he's felt this season with his breaking pitches.
"I think so. At the beginning of the game my fastball and my cutter weren't really working at all," he said. "They were probably at their worst all season, but I saw the slider had a good break, and Jarrod noticed that too. He really called the game well from that point."
When Matsuzaka pitched in Texas last season, he got sick in the dugout between innings. On Sunday, he made sure to stay hydrated and admitted it was the hottest conditions he's ever pitched in, as the temperature climbed to 103. He said he became light-headed after he was removed from the game.
"The last time I ever experienced anything like this was in high school, but it felt even hotter than that today."
Known for his slow tempo, Matsuzaka made it a point to work faster because of the heat.
"When it's this hot outside, the basic theory is to try to get our team off the field as quickly as we can and get them back up to bat," said Matsuzaka. "That was the one thing on my mind while I was pitching today."
Manager Terry Francona thought the quicker tempo worked better for the right-hander.
"He was working quicker, which is always welcome," Francona said. "I don't care if it's cold or hot, it's a heck of a lot better formula. But his stuff's good. I think he feels confident in his stuff. I do think he made a concerted effort to try to work quicker."
Prior to this season, Matsuzaka set a goal to completely rebound from a horrid 2009 campaign that was marred by injuries and controversy. Even though he began 2010 on the disabled list with a neck strain, and spent time on the DL again in June with a forearm strain, he's been effective and an important part of Boston's season.
"He's pretty good," Francona said. "I think last year, things got a little bit haywire. People forget that he's a pretty good pitcher. It's nice to see what we're seeing."
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.
Despite Sunday's loss, Dice-K remains confident in the Red Sox rotation.