Ready or not, Daisuke Matsuzaka returns to the mound this Saturday, facing big-league hitters for the first time in more than a year. He will take Daniel Bard's place in the Red Sox rotation after Bard imploded under the roof at Rogers Centre last Sunday.
Bard is now in Pawtucket trying to figure out what manager Bobby Valentine calls a "mechanical mystery" and Matsuzaka will try to figure out the upstart Washington Nationals lineup.
Dice-K hasn't pitched a big-league game since May 16, 2011. In case you don't remember that outing, let me remind you that he threw 106 pitches against the Orioles that day, lasting exactly 4 1/3 innings. He gave up five earned runs on five hits and a staggering seven walks. It was his third start of that month, a total of 11 1/3 innings, and Matsuzaka had given up 11 earned runs on 13 hits and 10 walks.
Three and a half weeks later, he was undergoing Tommy John surgery. One year later, he's back.
His final tune-up in Pawtucket didn't leave us feeling like he was a new man. Matsuzaka threw 40 pitches against AAA hitters and recorded just four outs. He walked two and gave up two hits in a 31-pitch first inning, although he did limit the damage to just two runs while leaving the bases loaded. The PawSox ultimately won the game.
Matsuzaka is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you're going to get. He had thrown two strong starts with Pawtucket (a total of 10 1/3 innings with one earned run) prior to Tuesday night's short outing.
In some ways, it's hard to believe we are in the final months of Matsuzaka's time with the Sox. The six-year contract given to the "National Treasure" of Japan will end in October. He was 33-15 with a 3.72 ERA in his first two seasons, but frustrated Sox fans at times by not "going after" hitters more. Still, the belief at that point was that he would assimilate to the American way of pitching, and that his best years were ahead of him.
It hasn't worked out that way, at least not yet. Matsuzaka is 16-15 with a 5.03 ERA since the start of 2009 with a 1.51 WHIP.
He's got one last chance to salvage his time in Boston, four months to prove he can still pitch in the big leagues. He will do it under the watchful eye of Bobby Valentine, one of the most celebrated managers in the history of Japanese baseball.
If there was ever a Major League manager who could get the most out of Matsuzaka, it should be Valentine. In Ft. Myers, Valentine kept a close eye on his pitcher from the start of camp, and has spoken about his eagerness to watch him pitch.
This Saturday, he will get his chance. Bard's struggles as a starter have opened the door for a man trying to prove his worth and reclaim his future in the game. It's now up to Matsuzaka to wipe away the frustrations of the past three years and pitch like the man who captured the attention of fans on both sides of the Pacific in 2007 and 2008.