For much of 2010, Daisuke Matsuzaka was swapping good starts for bad starts with both often coming with the team already on a roll. When he performed well, he was just a small part of a winning formula. When he faltered, everyone noticed, for he had been responsible for allowing the good times to come to an end.
There was never a sentence that included the words "Matsuzaka" and "clutch" throughout the season's first few months. Instead, several other words were tied to the 29-year-old righty — inconsistent, enigmatic and frustrating come to mind.
That has all changed in Matsuzaka's last two outings, a win in Toronto and another in Oakland on Monday night that could best be described by another term: timely.
Add to his resurgence the imminent returns of Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett and the team's starting rotation is looking powerful once again.
"He looked to me real sharp right from the beginning, I think that was real obvious," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of Matsuzaka. "That was real crisp. There was a lot of power to his pitches and he was down when he wanted to be. He misfired a couple of times but that was pretty good stuff."
The first of Dice-K's well-timed wins came in the first-half finale in Toronto. On a warm afternoon 24 hours earlier, the Sox had seen Francona and center fielder Mike Cameron ejected, four players get hit by pitches and the Blue Jays score the final six runs of the game in a marathon 9-5 loss, the club's fifth in six games and one of its more dismal setbacks all season.
Matsuzaka, who was coming off a difficult outing in Tampa Bay, picked up his team by taking a shutout into the seventh inning of what would result in a 3-2 win entering the All-Star break.
Some of the positive vibes surrounding that victory were lost during the three-day hiatus and those that remained vanished completely when the Sox opened the second half losing three of four against Texas at Fenway Park.
Matsuzaka, of course, did not appear in the series, but he was there in Oakland to shine in the opener of a 10-game road trip that some had likened to a death march for the struggling Sox, now having lost eight of 11.
"There are countless small improvements that I would want to make throughout my outing," Matsuzaka said. "But this is the type of pitching I really want to continue to do as the season goes on."
Through six innings Monday, Matsuzaka's only mistake was a hanging slider that Rajai Davis jumped on for a solo homer in the third, and a leadoff walk in the fourth. His last full inning, the sixth, resulted in three straight grounders to second. He threw only nine pitches.
For the second straight time, Matsuzaka had picked up an ailing ball club with a quality effort. With the ugly losses that came in the days before each start, his sixth and seventh wins have meant that much more.
The Sox carried a winning streak into five of Matsuzaka's first 11 starts, including a five-game streak and three that lasted three games. Entering another, they had won six of eight and before two others the club had claimed three of four before handing the ball to Matsuzaka.
Again, it caused his positive outings to get lost in the shuffle and those in which he struggled to stick out like a sore thumb.
Now, while Francona's bunch has hit the skids, his Japanese import has gone 2-0 with a 2.13 ERA, striking out 11 and walking just two in 12 2/3 innings.
"That's Dice's whole M.O. Getting ahead and throwing strikes," catcher Kevin Cash said.
Against Oakland, Matsuzaka threw 62-of-89 pitches for strikes.
"He was great, he was throwing strikes," said Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre, whose solo homer in the fourth proved to be the difference Monday. "He came right after every hitter."
It's an aggressive mind-set that can help any starting pitcher find success. Finally, Matsuzaka is the one setting the example.