It is just March 10, and although Matsuzaka's spring ERA sits at 11.42, nobody is sounding the alarm. However, they may be aware of its whereabouts.
Matsuzaka surrendered five runs — all earned — in 3 2/3 innings of an 8-6 loss to Tampa Bay on Thursday afternoon. He struck out two, walked two and gave up this third home run in just 8 2/3 innings this spring.
After giving up seven runs — five earned — on seven hits and a pair of walks in his previous outing against Florida, Matsuzaka hinted that he would treat the Tampa start more like the regular season. There were successful bullpen sessions leading up to the start, he said, but this is not the line he wants to produce in the regular season.
"The result didn't come out as I expected," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Kenta Yamada. "It's difficult to say in words how I performed today."
The performance had a rather ugly first act.
Matsuzaka walked leadoff man Ben Zobrist and then did the same to No. 2 hitter Johnny Damon. He then fell behind the dangerous Evan Longoria 3-1 before serving up a pretty fat offering right down the middle. Longoria poked it into center field to drive in the first run of the game. Another would come later in the inning on a sacrifice fly by Matt Joyce.
The second inning saw John Jaso take Matsuzaka deep to right. The third featured consecutive doubles by Zobrist and Damon to score one run and a single by Joyce to score another and make it 5-0. Working with journeyman catcher Paul Hoover, with whom there is little familiarity, Matsuzaka was not fooling many people.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona said early in the day that Matsuzaka, or any pitcher for that matter, can have some bad innings in a spring start, but if they end their outings on a good note they can carry momentum into their next start, and consequently the regular season. The fact that Matsuzaka got five straight outs, including his only two strikeouts, after the Joyce single before departing could give him a chance to build that momentum.
Still, the inconsistent nature of the start was notable.
"One of those outings where he made it harder than it was supposed to be," Francona said. "The last couple of hitters, and at times in the second and third, he threw the ball like he was supposed to and because of that he gets outs. There were also times that he made it harder than it was supposed to be."
Matsuzaka gave indication that even though he had said he wanted to treat the start like a regular season one, he continued to tweak some things in the days leading up to it. His changeup felt right on Thursday, the cutter did not. That's the pitch that has always been so solid for Matsuzaka. To have success in 2011, he will need to rediscover it. And to do so, he may need to take a step back, even though he talked five days ago as if he was ready to move forward.
"At this point I need to think why I didn't perform as expected," he said.
Matsuzaka said he is not worried about the back-to-back stinkers. Francona said, "We're not going to mail in the season," when asked if he had any concern. Again, it is just March 10.
There will soon be a time, however, when both Matsuzaka and the Red Sox will want a better result. Otherwise, the panic button may begin to look a little bigger.