ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- There's no truth to the rumor that Daisuke Matsuzaka is Japanese for "Flying Wallenda.'' But if you chronicled the man's exploits from spring training through the end of the regular season, it would be easy to get that impression.
Matsuzaka posted an 18-3 record for the Boston Red Sox this season. He also led the American League in walks, routinely blew through 100 pitches in five or six innings, and survived, in large part, because of his flair for making just the right pitch in big situations. While it's difficult to conceive of a pitcher holding opponents to a .000 batting average (0-for-14) with the bases loaded, Matsuzaka somehow managed the feat this season.
It's often said that pitchers who work quickly have a knack for keeping their fielders on their toes. Matsuzaka can be so scattershot at times, his fielders can barely feel their toes. Former big league pitching coach Ray Miller, who used to urge his pitchers to "work fast, change speeds and throw strikes,'' would not have been a fan.
"We're on the top step of the dugout many nights when Dice-K pitches,'' Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said.
It looked like just another long, exasperating night at the office Friday when Matsuzaka walked the bases loaded in the first inning of Boston's American League Championship Series opener with Tampa Bay. Then something clicked, and Matsuzaka showed precisely why the Red Sox spent more than $100 million on posting fees and salary commitments in their ardent pursuit of him two years ago.
For six innings, Matsuzaka pounded the bottom of the strike zone with sinking, two-seam fastballs and made deft use of his slider and changeup. He turned in six no-hit innings -- prompting dozens of media members to Google the fact that Don Larsen of the 1956 Yankees was the only pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the postseason.
History failed to repeat itself in the form of a no-no. But Matsuzaka sure proved to be a heck of a table-setter.
Dice-K pitched into the eighth inning and combined with relievers Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson and Jonathan Papelbon on a four-hit shutout, as Boston took the initiative in the ALCS with a 2-0 victory before 35,001 at Tropicana Field. With Josh Beckett scheduled to pitch Saturday and postseason ace Jon Lester set to go in Game 3 at Fenway, the Red Sox lent a sudden dose of reality to the Rays' magic postseason ride.
Sure, the Rays have plenty of time to come back in this series, but they no longer feel indomitable at home after going 8-1 against Boston at Tropicana Field during the regular season. And they won't be able to advance to the World Series unless they can take a game at Fenway Park, where they went 2-7 this season.
The clutch performance on a national stage might also generate some renewed respect for Matsuzaka, who isn't likely to finish near the top of the AL Cy Young voting despite his gaudy record.
"I think people just focus on Dice-K's walks, but I'll take him anytime,'' said Boston DH David Ortiz. "He just knows how to get out of trouble. I watch him out there sometimes or on [the clubhouse] TV, and he's got a whole bunch of different ways to get people out.
"He can go from being wild to painting on you. That's what makes him so tough. He can throw three balls, then next thing you know, he's on the black. Then the next thing you know, he'll throw a pitch with a lot of movement, and the count is 3-2 and what are you looking for now? He's not a guy you can sit fastball on, because he doesn't give up and he doesn't give in.''
Matsuzaka's three regular-season starts against the Rays had a certain symmetry to them. He threw five innings each time before leaving with workloads of 101, 102 and 101 pitches, respectively.
But while some observers might have wondered why Terry Francona started Matsuzaka in the ALCS opener, Boston's manager had his reasons. For starters, Matsuzaka posted a 9-0 record on the road this season. He's also extremely comfortable pitching under the roof at the Tropicana Dome. Maybe it's because of all those years he spent pitching in a dome for the Seibu Lions in Japan.
Matsuzaka uncharacteristically retired 10 straight Rays from the third through sixth innings Friday. He worked out of trouble in the seventh, then went back out for the eighth even though he had thrown 107 pitches. Francona and Farrell thought Matsuzaka still had some gas in the tank, and they were hoping he could get past B.J. Upton, the second batter in the inning.
It didn't quite work out that way. Matsuzaka wasn't able to celebrate until Masterson induced a big double-play groundout from Evan Longoria and Papelbon threw a scoreless ninth inning to extend his postseason shutout streak to 20 2/3 innings. While Boston's setup contingent is considered a potential weak spot, Masterson and Okajima did just fine in the opener in front of Papelbon.
As for Matsuzaka, he's scheduled to pitch again in Game 5 in Boston. Chances are the Red Sox won't get this degree of efficiency two starts in a row. But when it comes time to stare down a hitter and summon just the right pitch from his repertoire, Matsuzaka has made it clear that he's eminently capable.
"He has very good control of his emotions,'' Farrell said. "He's very aware where he is in the lineup and he does a tremendous job of managing the lineup. Sometimes it doesn't totally work out. But the same competitiveness and unwillingness to give in that cause Dice-K to get into those situations also enable him to get out of them.''
As it turns out, Matsuzaka is a high-wire act, an escape artist and an illusionist all in one. And he's one extremely gratified pitcher at the moment.