LAKELAND, Fla. — While neither Daisuke Matsuzaka nor the Red Sox were extremely worried after he had another rough outing last week, it was clear that everyone involved wanted to see some better results.
Matsuzaka said as much after he gave up five runs in 3 2/3 innings at Tampa Bay on Thursday. His manager, Terry Francona, indicated Tuesday morning he wanted to see Matsuzaka throw his pitches with "purpose."
Anything to prevent having to sound the alarm that would've rang if Matsuzaka had another rocky outing or two in Florida.
The righty gave the Sox plenty of reason to call off the over-eager dogs with a stellar start against the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday. He yielded a pair of singles and one walk while striking out five in five scoreless innings, all against the Tigers' premium lineup, which included Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Magglio Ordonez.
If the stinker on March 10 caused some to wonder if something was wrong with Matsuzaka, the gem five days later gave renewed confidence in the team's No. 5 starter.
"He just pounded the strike zone, threw all his pitches for strikes," Francona said. "We tell all of our pitchers that if they do that, good things will happen."
There were a handful of factors in play that may have contributed to the turnaround. Matsuzaka threw his last start to Paul Hoover, a journeyman with whom he is relatively unfamiliar, and was tossing to captain Jason Varitek on Tuesday. For his career, Matsuzaka's numbers with Varitek behind the plate are better across the board.
Varitek got a first-hand glance at the best Matsuzaka has had to offer all month.
"He was able to establish himself today," Varitek said. "Good mix. He started with location first and we were able to do different things off of that. He was good today."
In addition to partnering with Varitek, Matsuzaka used input from pitching coach Curt Young that may have contributed to his crispness. On Young's recommendation, Matsuzaka did not throw long toss and his bullpen session on the same day between starts, as has been his custom. The alteration was made in order to try to limit the strain on Matsuzaka during those long days of throwing. After Tuesday's result, Matsuzaka indicated he will stick with the plan.
A third factor, which Francona alluded to, was this renewed commitment to throwing strikes and staying aggressive, also a result of a head-to-head with Young. It may sound basic, but the righty has often shown a tendency to nibble, to put it lightly.
Lastly, although it was only a Grapefruit League game, Matsuzaka may have been pitching with a little extra incentive. His thoughts have been with family and friends back home in Japan, and he knows that the millions affected by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami late last week could use a little something to brighten their day.
"I'm always aware of what happened in Japan and I understand the fans are always watching me on the mound, so I would like to continue throwing better for people in Japan, as well as fans," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Kenta Yamada.
Lost in all of the noise surrounding the early struggles for Matsuzaka was the fact that he is healthy and perhaps in the best shape of his Red Sox career. That cannot be taken lightly. He has not emerged from spring training 100 percent since 2008, when he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. With physical issues dogging him each of the last two springs, he has put forth a combined 13-12 record and a 4.99 ERA.
Certainly, some could imagine similar results for Matsuzaka with the way the spring had gone so far, health or no health. On Tuesday, however, there was at least some reason to think otherwise.
"Everybody needs nuggets every once in awhile," Varitek said. "It was a good nugget for him today."