It would be easy to say sayonara to the Japanese right-hander, but resist the temptation to cross him off the list of potential starting pitchers who could help the Red Sox make the playoffs.
Even though Matsuzaka got roughed up by Double-A hitters on Sunday, there is still reason to believe he can deliver quality starts.
Only one of the two innings he pitched against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats was miserable. After allowing five earned runs on four hits and three walks in a 49-pitch first inning, the Dice Man needed just nine pitches to set down the Cats in order. Why focus on one bad frame? He may have gotten all the junk out of his system before returning to the Show.
Cynics will point to the 30 other innings of batting practice he threw earlier this season as evidence he no longer has the goods. But remember that he went 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA in the World Baseball Classic to take home his second straight tournament MVP. This isn’t a man who can’t pitch — this is simply a man who started pitching at 100 percent too soon.
Throwing at maximum capacity in March contributed to a tired shoulder, which led to more weak pitches than a retirement home full of used car salesmen. By June, Matsuzaka had a 1-5 record in eight starts, and his ERA (8.23) almost matched his salary (8.33) minus the millions of dollars.
Nothing is wrong with his arm anymore. His fastball topped out at 96 miles an hour in Manchester, N.H., over the weekend, and he reported no pain in his shoulder. If Matsuzaka can throw that kind of heat with consistency and figure out how to throw his off-speed stuff for strikes, watch out.
Matsuzaka is still young. He turns 29 on Sept. 13 and has a tremendous amount of pride. He isn’t used to failing and always has pitched better when his back is against the wall. Holding opposing batters to a .174 career average when the bases are loaded is no accident. Pitching out of trouble and completing games is considered a badge of honor in Japan. In high school, Matsuzaka once threw 250 pitches over 17 innings to lead his team to victory.
The cultural differences between Japanese and American baseball — especially with regard to pitch counts and maintenance programs — are well-documented. It’s no secret such differences have made the assimilation process tougher than expected for Matsuzaka, who has been conditioned to never give in to hitters. He let some of his frustrations get lost in translation earlier this summer and took a PR hit because of it.
Perhaps it could be time to listen to his concerns instead of dismissing them. Maybe the Red Sox should consider making an exception to their pitching rules and forget about the 100-pitch limit when Dice-K is on the mound. Let him get back to his roots.
Perhaps we all need to rethink our thinking. That doesn’t mean Dice-K doesn’t get a hook when he deserves one. It just means he has a little longer leash.
The right-hander is scheduled to make his next rehab start for Triple-A Pawtucket on Thursday. If all goes well, he could be back with the big club sometime next week.
Now is not the time to give up on him. That has been the theme of this Red Sox team all season.
The Red Sox didn’t give up after struggling in July, and now they are playing some of their best baseball of the season and are the front-runners in the AL wild-card race.
The Red Sox didn’t give up on Clay Buchholz after he forgot how to get an out, and now he’s close to untouchable.
The Red Sox didn’t give up on Paul Byrd when his fastball was clocked slower than the Little Leaguers in Williamsport, and now he’s outdueling Roy Halladay.
Dice-K can be next on the list. He is only one season removed from 18 wins and is too big of an investment for the Red Sox to flush down the drain.
Two Nations are counting on him to deliver. He is determined not to let either one of them down.
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