Don Orsillo raised an interesting point in his last mailbag.
After Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, how should the Red Sox line up their No. 3 and No. 4 starters in the postseason? Do they go with Daisuke Matsuzaka at No. 3 and Clay Buchholz at No. 4? Or should Buchholz get the call before Matsuzaka?
It all could depend on how Matsuzaka pitches against the Yankees on Saturday in the Bronx. If he shuts down New York’s potent offense – with the pinstripes’ heavy left-handed lineup and short right porch at the new Yankee Bandbox — stick a feather in his cap and call him Money.
But if the Japanese right-hander struggles, Terry Francona, John Farrell and Boston’s brain trust might be hesitant to roll the dice with Dice-K in the third game of a playoff series — especially a five-game division series.
At this point, there is reason to believe Matsuzaka can get the job done in October. In his first two starts since returning from a three-month stay on the disabled list, he has looked more like a pitcher who can deliver with the weight of the world on his shoulders than a journeyman with a tired shoulder. He’s shown pop on his fastball and gotten back to defying physics with his off-speed stuff.
Equally encouraging has been his efficiency on the mound. Aside from some momentary flashes of déjà vu, he’s avoided the excruciating innings that made fans look forward to his starts the way people look forward to the stomach flu. Granted, two games is a small sample size, but there hasn’t been a single epic, pack-a-lunch-take-out-a-good-book-and-get-comfortable-because-it’s-going-to-be-a-long-day kind of outing yet. Matsuzaka hasn’t thrown more than 24 pitches in any inning on his comeback tour.
And the former 18-game winner hasn’t forgotten how to win. He is 2-0 with a 2.39 ERA in September.
As long as Matsuzaka continues down this path of reliability, he deserves to be the No. 3 starter in the postseason. That is why the Red Sox paid so much money to secure the rights to pay him a whole lot of money in the first place – to hand him the ball in big games.
Between him and Buchholz, Matsuzaka is a proven commodity in the postseason. He is 3-1 with a 4.79 ERA in seven career postseason starts over 35 2/3 innings. Those numbers won’t be confused with Bob Gibson’s resume, but Matsuzaka has won one World Series game and two ALCS contests. He’s stood on the biggest stage and come through in the clutch.
Buchholz has made as many playoff appearances as most of us. None. Even though he’s matured into a consistent hurler – winning five straight decisions and not losing since Aug. 13 — Buchholz remains an unknown postseason entity. Until the 25-year-old competes and shines under the brightest lights, nobody knows for certain how he will deal with the pinnacle of major league pressure.
Matsuzaka and Buchholz probably have three more regular-season starts to strengthen their cases for the No. 3 slot in the playoff rotation. If both pitch well and the Red Sox keep winning games when each is on the mound, Francona and company are going to have a tough decision to make.
It’s a good problem to have.