FORT MYERS, Fla. — In 2008 and 2009, Daisuke Matsuzaka was considered the Red Sox' No. 3 starter. Going into spring training last year, he figured to have the No. 4 spot locked down while Clay Buchholz and Tim Wakefield fought it out for the final spot (hard to imagine, but it happened).
Now, as Matsuzaka enters his fifth year in a Red Sox uniform and again finds himself coming off a lackluster campaign, he is a definitive No. 5.
Not that such slots mean all that much once the season gets going, but it's obvious this year in Fort Myers that the attention on Matsuzaka is a bit less than it has been in the past. The right-hander, who still has the country of Japan hanging on his every word, is just fine with that.
"I prefer less," Matsuzaka joked Wednesday afternoon, saying so through his interpreter Kenta Yamada. "It's easier to deal with."
In all seriousness, Matsuzaka knows this is a pivotal season for him, and perhaps the most pivotal portion is already underway. He memorably sputtered out of the gate in 2009 after laying it all on the line in the World Baseball Classic and going his own route in terms of offseason training. The result was eight starts and an 8.23 ERA through mid-September.
In 2010, seemingly ready to erase the off year, he strained his neck in spring training, opened that year on the disabled list and had his fair share of ups and downs.
Just beginning the year healthy has been a struggle. He intends on ending that little streak in 2011.
"I want to stay on the mound throughout the year," he said. "In the past two years I was not 100 percent confident about my physical condition. This year, I've felt pretty good."
With good health, Matsuzaka hopes that the roller coaster of his Red Sox tenure will finally level off into a guy upon which the team can depend.
"In the past four years, [it's been] good and bad," he said when asked of his time in Boston. "I've had a good time and a bad experience as well. I will use that experience for having a better season."
Matsuzaka said he will have no issues with new pitching coach Curt Young, despite the communication barrier. Manager Terry Francona has already seen the two come together just fine.
"One of Curt's strengths is his relationships with his players," Francona said. "He's got an easy demeanor, he's got a way of talking to guys that's really comfortable.
Like Matsuzaka, Francona feels that the pressure that surrounded the right-hander from the moment he arrived in Boston has finally begun to let up a bit. Francona recalled one spring training moment before Matsuzaka's rookie year in 2007 when he gave up a hit in a Grapefruit League game and the Sox "almost had to call in the United Nations" to calm the masses, and the righty.
"Every time [Matsuzaka] takes the ball right now it's not quite as big of a moment, so he can be a more normal baseball player," Francona said. "Now, he's developing into more of a pitcher, which I think should be easy."