Commentary

In familiar spot, Red Sox turn to Matsuzaka to lead the way

Originally Published: October 15, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- A small but vocal contingent of Boston fans buys into the premise that a 3-1 American League Championship Series deficit is merely a character builder for the Red Sox. It's the old "we've got them right where we want them'' theory run amok.

One of those true believers made his feelings known to Tampa Bay left fielder Carl Crawford from the stands during the Rays' 13-4 thumping of Boston on Tuesday night. The fan reminded Crawford that the Red Sox escaped an even bigger hole when they recovered from being down 3-0 to the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.

[+] EnlargeDaisuke Matsuzaka
Elsa/Getty ImagesDaisuke Matsuzaka pitched seven shutout innings to earn the win for the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALCS.
"We know we're going to get reminded a lot about it,'' Crawford said. "One guy was yelling, 'Go ask Derek Jeter. Go ask Derek Jeter.' He was yelling it real loud, so I know everybody heard it. I'm sure there's going to be some more of that.''

The taunts rang a bit hollow given that Crawford was on his way to going 5-for-5 at the plate, but New England sports fans aren't quite ready to give up on baseball for an NFL autumn filled with Matt Cassel at quarterback. And if any big league organization is well-versed in the art of the comeback, it's the Red Sox.

Six times in franchise history, the Sox have fallen behind 3-1 in a postseason series. Four times, they've emerged victorious. Last year Josh Beckett outpitched Cleveland ace CC Sabathia in Game 5 of the ALCS, and the Sox reeled off six more wins in succession to eliminate the Indians and sweep the Colorado Rockies in the World Series.

For what it's worth, the Red Sox are in better spirits than some of their faithful appear to be. Manager Terry Francona said the players arrived for a Wednesday afternoon workout dying to get back on the field.

As an added bonus, the Sox are about to give the ball to their only starter whose self-esteem is still intact.

Daisuke Matsuzaka posted an 18-3 record this season, partly on resourcefulness and an ability to wriggle out of trouble. Matsuzaka led the American League in walks, and spent so much time pitching with runners on base that it's a wonder his teammates didn't nickname him "Stretch.''

But he ranked fifth in the league with 8.27 strikeouts per nine innings and held opponents to a .164 batting average with runners in scoring position. That's the best by a Red Sox pitcher since Roger Clemens (.157) in 1994.

We want to focus on maintaining our same approach -- staying within ourselves and putting together some good at-bats as a team. That's the same whoever is pitching, whether it's Matsuzaka or Godzilla or King Kong.

--Rays 1B Carlos Pena

His previous time out, Matsuzaka was downright dazzling to beat the Rays 2-0 in the series opener. He survived three first-inning walks to take a no-hitter into the seventh. Who could have envisioned that a week later, he would be taking the mound intent on saving Boston's season?

"I'm not Beckett,'' Matsuzaka said through an interpreter, "but if I can pitch like he did last year and hand the ball off to the guys behind me, that would be great.''

It won't be easy. While Tampa Bay encountered some fallow stretches offensively this season, this isn't the same club that ranked ninth in the league in runs and tied for seventh with Baltimore in OPS. Crawford and third baseman Evan Longoria both have their timing back after missing extended periods with hand injuries, and if the Rays aren't beating you with the long ball, they're unnerving you with their speed.

The Rays have some weak spots in their lineup when it comes to plate discipline, but manager Joe Maddon and hitting coach Steve Henderson keep reminding the young Tampa hitters that the longer a plate appearance goes, the more advantageous it becomes. The Rays also seem oblivious to the guy who's standing 60 feet, 6 inches away.

In the past two games at Fenway, they've hit a total of seven homers off Jon Lester's hard stuff, Paul Byrd's soft stuff and Tim Wakefield's knuckler. As valuable as scouting reports and film study can be, the Rays are finding that it's best sometimes to purge the clutter and boil the game down to its essence. See the ball, crush the ball.

"I don't think we want to spend our time thinking about how Dice-K pitched last time,'' said first baseman Carlos Pena. "What for? It does us absolutely no good.

"Instead, we want to focus on maintaining our same approach -- staying within ourselves and putting together some good at-bats as a team. That's the same whoever is pitching, whether it's Matsuzaka or Godzilla or King Kong. If you told me, 'King Kong is on the mound tomorrow, what are you going to do?' I'd be saying all the same things.''

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Matsuzaka has a handful of pitches at his disposal, but his major weapon in Game 1 was a sinking two-seam fastball. His fate Thursday could hinge on his ability to reclaim the inner half of the plate.

Francona conceded that some of Tampa Bay's power hitters have looked very comfortable of late. That doesn't mean Boston's pitchers have to start sending message pitches at body parts, but anything to make the Rays move their feet or think twice about diving over the plate would be a welcome development.

"If you let big, strong guys get their arms extended, you pay the price,'' Francona said. "B.J. Upton is a very good example. If you let him get his arms extended right now, he feels so good about himself, he back-spins the ball all the way to whatever that street is.''

It's called Lansdowne Street, Terry, and it runs directly behind Fenway Park's Green Monster. If Boston's Game 5 starter can't figure out a way to keep the Tampa Bay hitters on the right side of it, all those loyal Red Sox boosters might soon be discussing your team's season in the past tense.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer