On a Variety of Counts, Matsuzaka Might Find This Season Even Better

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008

The circus atmosphere that surrounded each of Daisuke Matsuzaka's starts in the early part of 2007 is virtually gone -- although the Japanese media pack documenting his every move remains in force, with the latest buzz back home focusing on Matsuzaka's prediction in the Sankei Sports newspaper that the Boston Red Sox would repeat as World Series champs, and he would win the Cy Young Award.

Two weeks into the season, neither prediction appears outrageous, although the Red Sox have their concerns (Mike Lowell's trip to the disabled list, David Ortiz's achy knee, Josh Beckett's lingering back pain) and Matsuzaka's hot start (2-0, 1.47 ERA in his first three starts) is just that.

Still, it is fair to ask: Is this the year Matsuzaka blossoms into the Cy Young contender his backers thought he would be from the beginning? Although his 2007 rookie season was hardly a disappointment, the Red Sox quietly believe he could follow the Beckett trajectory -- a struggle to adapt in his first season in Boston, then a monster season in year two.

"He doesn't have to answer questions about a place he's never been, or a [slicker] baseball he's never used," Manager Terry Francona said.

In beating Detroit on Tuesday, in the Red Sox' home opener, Matsuzaka seemed like a different pitcher than the one who picked around the edges of the strike zone last summer. As pitching coach John Farrell noted, Matsuzaka faced 14 counts of 1-1, and threw the third pitch for a strike 11 times.

Through three starts, he is averaging nearly one fewer pitch per inning -- the equivalent to lasting an extra inning every other start.

"He's not being so fine" with his pitches, Farrell said. "We're hopeful he'll get into the seventh, eighth, ninth innings a little more [frequently], with a reasonable pitch count."

ยท LOOKING FOR A CLUE: Do the Tigers have a fatal flaw -- we mean besides their clearly overmatched bullpen -- that everyone missed in picking them to win the AL pennant this year? Despite their offensive firepower, are they too vulnerable to solid right-handed pitching?

A year ago, the Tigers were a very ordinary 60-59 in games started by right-handers, and new third baseman Miguel Cabrera -- an exceptionally talented right-handed slugger who was their signature pick-up this winter -- has not exactly solved that issue.

Through their first 10 games, the Tigers were hitting just .249 (10th in the American League) with a .697 OPS against right-handers, which ranked last in the AL.

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