FORT MYERS, Fla. — The sarcasm was flowing once more in the wake of the Red Sox losing the Mayor's Cup when the Minnesota Twins rallied for a 9-8 victory Saturday night. The meaningless trophy often elicits such humor.
However, the spring surge of Daisuke Matsuzaka — the main reason that Boston was in position to claim the best-of-five series with its crosstown competition — is not to be taken lightly.
Matsuzaka had his third straight strong outing since making an adjustment to his between-starts regimen, helping to post the Red Sox to a seven-run lead they would eventually waste in a 9-8 setback at City of Palms Park.
"His stuff was sharp," manager Terry Francona said. "His fastball had some real good finish today."
Roughly three weeks ago, the top four pitchers in the Red Sox rotation were coasting along. Meanwhile, Matsuzaka was scuffling, and the talk that often surrounds the enigmatic righty when he isn't getting outs began to surface. Coming off two straight poor seasons, would he ever be the pitcher the team enjoyed in the first two years of his six-year contract?
This week, as each starter was given his longest outing of the spring, the first four guys fell flat. Starting with Jon Lester on Monday and ending with Josh Beckett on Friday, they produced some extremely ugly lines, posting a collective 9.15 ERA and giving up 33 hits — seven home runs — in 20 2/3 innings.
Then there's Matsuzaka, everyone's target in early March and right now the one out of the five who looks most ready for Opening Day, perhaps with the exception of Lester, who really only had one bad inning in his most recent start.
With Saturday's admirable effort, Matsuzaka has an ERA of 1.62 over those three special outings. In that span, he has allowed just 10 hits in 16 2/3 innings while striking out 13 and walking four. Perhaps most important for a guy that has not been able to head north healthy the last two springs, Matsuzaka is feeling wonderful.
"My first objective of the spring is to stay healthy," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Kenta Yamada, adding that his second objective is to make the starting rotation, which was a virtual certainty all along anyway. "This is the first step and so far I'm happy with it."
The three positive outings have come on the heels of a rather significant change in Matsuzaka's routine between starts. Through his first three starts of the spring, which resulted in a 12.91 ERA, he continued his career-long practice of throwing his side session and long toss on the same day. Pitching coach Curt Young convinced him to stagger the activities on different days, and although Francona has indicated that the effects of the alteration won't be clear until later in the season, the results have improved dramatically.
Matsuzaka seemed to indicate that he feels less rushed by breaking up the sessions.
"Since I split long toss and side in a day, that creates more time in each session and so far I'm happy," he said.
The shift may help Matsuzaka remain physically strong throughout the season. It was a show of mental fortitude on Saturday that drew rave reviews and stood as the singular moment in a game that would not end for another two hours or so.
After getting the first two outs of the fifth inning (his 10th and 11th consecutive outs against the Twins' "A" lineup), Matsuzaka gave up a single to Alexi Casilla. In stepped Minnesota center fielder and leadoff hitter Denard Span, who proceeded to battle Matsuzaka for 10 pitches, one of which saw Casilla swipe second and three of which came after Span called time.
Finally, still with only one ball in the count, Span grounded softly to first base for what should've been the third out and a huge victory for Matsuzaka. But Adrian Gonzalez bobbled the ball and Matsuzaka was forced to face the dangerous Tsuyoshi Nishioka with runners on the corners.
Matsuzaka got his countryman to ground to second for a force and walked off with a hard-earned goose egg on the board.
"I thought the real interesting [moment] was Span's at-bat," Francona said. "Span had a real good at-bat and then we had the error and he came back and attacked the next hitter. That was really encouraging.
"It knocked his pitch count up but it didn't turn into something. He just kept making pitches when he wanted to. That's impressive."
Matsuzaka allowed the Twins to load the bases in the sixth but struck out Danny Valencia on a beautiful breaking ball to finish his night. That, too, was impressive.
The way the schedule breaks down, Matsuzaka will not have another start before the regular season. All he gets is a simulated game Thursday morning in Houston before the team boards a flight to Dallas for the April 1 opener at Texas. He will make his debut April 6 in Cleveland. The Red Sox hope that the first four guys in the rotation have better results than they did this week in southern Florida. At the very least, they have a renewed confidence in the fifth guy.