The Return of Vintage Dice-K

The Return of Vintage Dice-K This was the Daisuke Matsuzaka of old.

Remember the Dice-K we saw in 2007, the pitcher who came to the States amid much fanfare and won 15 games, not including Game 3 of the World Series? Or in 2008, when he held opponents to a .211 average and was a legitimate candidate for the American League Cy Young?

We forgot that Dice-K all too quickly. Eight bad starts over a two-month stretch, and all of a sudden he was a lost cause. Baseball's always been a fickle game, but it's especially true in Boston. These fans' demand for results never dies.

Maybe now, Dice-K's hushed his critics a little.

After three months on the disabled list, the 29-year-old Matsuzaka returned Tuesday night to throw six shutout innings, allowing three hits and striking out five, as the Red Sox cruised to a 4-1 victory over the visiting Angels. This is a healthy Dice-K; he's back and he's raring to go. We've been waiting a while.

"On the road back, I’ve been a burden on my teammates more than anything, and I feel like I owe them," Matsuzaka said last night. "There’s not much left in the season, but in the limited time, in the limited opportunity that I do have, I want to show my appreciation to the fans and my teammates by contributing in a positive way."

This is a man who holds himself accountable for his performance. The Red Sox and their fans may be demanding a lot from their third-year starter, but Matsuzaka appears to be demanding even more from himself.

To the Japanese, honor is an important part of being a man. To Daisuke Matsuzaka, there's honor in living up to the $52 million contract he signed with the Red Sox. There's honor in performing admirably under the intense media spotlight in Boston. Perhaps most importantly at the moment, there's honor in pitching this Red Sox team into the playoffs.

If this is the Daisuke Matsuzaka we can expect for the rest of 2009, then it's time for the Red Sox to reexamine their plans for the postseason. Dice-K may have earned himself a starting job.

The Red Sox now lead in the AL wild card race by 5.5 games with 19 more to play. They're closing in on a playoff berth, but in the meantime they can give three or maybe even four more starts to a healthy Matsuzaka. They should test him out and see just how ready he is to be an impact pitcher again.

The pitcher we saw on Tuesday night is the one the Red Sox want in the playoffs. He went after hitters early in the count. He got ahead 0-1, and from there, he went straight for 0-2. He didn't waste pitches, he didn't give up when he fell behind, and he worked out of jams when he had to. This was a pitcher that withstood pressure and worked like a professional.

If the Red Sox see the Angels again in October, it would be nice to see Dice-K turn in another performance like this one.

No one saw this coming when Dice-K hit the disabled list on June 19. Most fans were happy to see him off the active roster — he was 1-5 with an ERA of 8.23, and it was taxing to watch him give games away.

Now that he's back and he's healthy, we can forget about that Dice-K. This is the real one, and he's sticking around. Come October, he could really come in handy.

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