The Red Sox could be excused for looking confused against Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg on Friday. For one, Strasburg has come into his own this season as one of the most dominant pitchers in Major League Baseball, racking up 92 strikeouts with a 1.04 WHIP in just 71 innings thus far. Also, the Red Sox had never faced Strasburg and his arsenal of hard stuff before.
But the same could not be said about Gio Gonzalez, who the Red Sox faced five times prior and slugged .526 against during his career in Oakland before an offseason trade to Washington. As comfortable as Red Sox hitters had looked against Gonzalez before this year, they looked equally uncomfortable on Saturday afternoon, managing only three hits in his 6 1/3 innings of work.
"His ball was moving a lot," Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said of Gonzalez. "Hard to hit, hard to see."
Valentine mentioned the fact that it's harder to pick up the ball out of a left hander's hand during day games at Fenway, but it seems like a poor excuse against a pitcher the Red Sox' hitters had every historical reason to dominate. Instead, the biggest positive the Sox' batters can take from Saturday is that they forced Gonzalez to throw a lot of pitches, enabling his early exit in the seventh.
Gonzalez has, in fact, looked like a much different pitcher this season in the National League, coming in to his own at the age of 26. And Saturday was more of what Gonzalez does when he's at his best; not overpowering, but keeping hitters off balance by mixing his speeds with precision.
One can only hope that Daisuke Matsuzaka was watching Gonzalez and taking notes.
Dice-K may have more velocity behind his pitching style, but ultimately he, like Gonzalez, relies on movement and changing speeds to produce his best results. Neither pitcher's control is going to be confused with Greg Maddux' any time soon, but they can affort an extra free pass or two because of the number of bats they miss.
Right now, however, Gonzalez is clearly the more effective of the two at employing that strategy. Perhaps it's not fair to judge Matsuzaka on one start after missing a full calendar year due to Tommy John surgery, but on Saturday, Dice-K showed more of the same command issues that had made him so frustrating before the injury. Meanwhile, Gonzalez attacks the zone and trusts his stuff with far more frequency.
After replacing Daniel Bard in the rotation, with Matsuzaka the Red Sox have gone from one starting pitcher with command issues and turned to another pitcher with command issues. If Matsuzaka hopes to stabilize the Sox' rotation, he'd be better off nibbling less and letting his natural movement carry the ball off the middle of the plate.
It's exactly the adjustment Gonzalez has made, and he's turned himself into an ace-caliber pitcher in Washington.
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