This was supposed to be different. With a new manager and coaching staff, there was an assumption the Red Sox starter would produce better results. With a year away — after Tommy John surgery — from the spotlight, this was his moment to start over.
And yet, Matsuzaka was once again a mixed bag in Saturday's 4-2 loss against the Nationals. While he flummoxed hitters en route to racking up eight strikeouts, he still unraveled in the fourth inning by yielding three runs.
It was his first start in the majors since May 16, 2011. And it was the same old ebbs and flows for the pitcher.
"Every time I pitch, I want to give the team a chance to win," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Jeff Cutler. "Losing today is very disappointing, but I think I did leave some positives for my next start. I definitely think I pitched better than I have been pitching during my rehab assignment."
Aside from the fourth inning, Matsuzaka was downright impressive. He mixed his offspeed pitches and fastball with ease, collecting the most strikeouts in an outing with one walk or less since May 11, 2010.
"That's the most nervous I've been before a start," Matsuzaka said. "When I was first told by Bobby that I was starting today's game, every time I would think about the game, I'd become a little nervous. That's probably the most nervous I've been during my time here in Boston."
But then, the Japanese hurler reverted to bad habits — early long balls — that also plagued him during his minor league stints in Pawtucket. After a spotless first inning, he yielded a leadoff solo shot to Adam LaRoche.
Then came the walk to Bryce Harper in the fourth. And in a brief sequence, Matsuzaka squashed all notions of progression by allowing two singles and a double to snowball into three more runs.
"I didn't like the four runs and I didn't like the four balls to Harper in the one at-bat," Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said. "Other than that, I liked what I saw. I thought he threw a lot of strikes with all of his pitches. Had good offspeed stuff. Had pretty good command of his fastball except for that one at-bat. Had it moving both ways.
"If we can build on that, eight strikeouts in five innings, it's pretty good."
There's certainly room for improvement, but that theme has epitomized the story of Matsuzaka's career. At times, his stuff is filthy. Other times, not so much.
After a yearlong absence, Matsuzaka returned as a mixed bag, yet again.
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