BOSTON -- Daisuke Matsuzaka finally returned to the Red Sox rotation Tuesday night, for the first time since June 19, after dealing with shoulder and strength problems for the majority of the season, and he put on a display of ambitious proportions.
He was efficient and effective and helped Boston to 4-1 victory over Los Angeles, tossing six scoreless innings while allowing only three hits, three walks and striking out five.
He wowed the 37,942 at Fenway Park, who gave Matsuzaka a standing ovation as he exited the mound after walking the leadoff hitter in the top of the seventh inning. He tipped his cap and waved to the fans. When he stepped into the dugout, Dice-K was mobbed by his teammates.
If Matsuzaka can continue to pitch like he did Tuesday night, then the Red Sox' starting rotation suddenly becomes very dangerous the rest of the way, including the postseason.
"If he can continue six and seven innings at a time with no runs on the board, we'll certainly take it," said pitching coach John Farrell. "But this is definitely a progressive step over the starts he made in rehab before getting here. I think once he was able to get through the first inning without any runs on the board, it gave him a chance to (relax). I'm sure there were some butterflies the first time back after an extended period down. He needs to be commended for the work he's done in reshaping himself and getting his core strength back. Everything he did on the DL showed up here tonight."
A rotation of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Matsuzaka and possibly Tim Wakefield or Paul Byrd, combined with a deep bullpen will prove crucial the rest of the way.
Matsuzaka feels like he has to regain his teammates' respect for the season-long letdown.
"On the road back, I've been a burden on my teammates more than anything, and I feel like I owe them," he said. "There's not much left in the season, but in the limited time, in the limited opportunity that I do have, I want to show my appreciation to the fans and my teammates by contributing in a positive way."
While the rest of the position players for the Red Sox were thrilled with Matsuzaka's performance, it was the rest of the rotation that really felt satisfaction -- almost relief -- in his performance.
"He threw the ball unbelievably well tonight," said Lester. "He came back and looked strong. It seemed like he didn't skip a beat and nothing bothered him at all. It's a good thing to see, and hopefully it carries over. If we keep plugging away and get into the playoffs, hopefully he can help us out big-time when we get there."
If there's one other pitcher in the rotation who completely understands what Dice-K has gone through and what he can add the rest of the way, it's Buchholz. After a horrendous season in 2008, he spent the majority of this year at Pawtucket before he was summoned in July.
"He came in and did what everybody wanted him to do and expected him to do," said Buchholz of Matsuzaka. "It was fun to watch. It was fun to watch a guy who's already established in the big leagues come back from some misfortune and throw the ball the way he did tonight. It should be fun to watch in October. ... We're all ready for it."
As Beckett made his way out of the clubhouse, he kept his remarks simple and to the point about Dice-K.
"He did good. Thumbs up," he said.
Matsuzaka had command of the zone and was able to repeat his delivery on a consistent basis, which led to his success over the Angels. Still, given his recent history, some are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
"You can't put everything into one start because he had to get out there and get a feel," said catcher Jason Varitek. "It could have just as well gone the other way, but the good thing is he was strong."
It certainly was a promising performance.
"It was a good shot in the arm for us for him to go out there and throw the ball like he did tonight," said Farrell.