By Andy Lindberg
I really do like Daisuke Matsuzaka. I writhe in agony whenever I watch him pitch, imagining walk upon walk until the pitch count hits 100 in the fourth inning and whatever batter he has the misfortune of grooving one to finally uncorks a big fly and sends Matsuzaka forth into the gloomy musk of the dugout hallway. That imagination turns to reality fairly often, it seems. But I still like him.
Struck from the memories are the excellent starts Matsuzaka has had in a Boston uniform. But once he established himself as a tedious, meticulous painter of the area just outside the strike zone, there was no recovering in the eyes of the Boston faithful.
So forgotten are his [18-3] 2008 campaign, his rookie year World Series win, and his .613 winning percentage. What stands out to most of us are his sole complete game, which came in 2007, his 94 walks in 2008 that he somehow managed to pitch around, and the legend that was Matsuzaka well before he took the hill for Boston four years ago.
But maybe therein lies the problem, and maybe Matsuzaka himself is the perfect metaphor for these 2011 Boston Red Sox. Predicted to be unstoppable, personified as an unrelenting, massacring force capable of inexplicable damage to be thrust upon any and all opponents. A force so brilliant and earth shattering, fans would be reduced to tears at the sheer beauty and terrible power that would be displayed before them in the confines of venerable Fenway Park.
The 2011 Red Sox won the World Series before they even took the field, just as Matsuzaka won three Cy Young awards and threw two perfect games with the mysterious gyro ball before ever throwing a pitch in practice for the Red Sox.
Yet, upon taking the field, we realize through all the unnecessary, ill-advised, and uninformed hype that both entities here are inexplicably, fundamentally flawed. The 2011 Red Sox are a new team with a new lineup and overhauled bullpen. Players are not familiar with their spots in the batting order because the order is drastically different than it ever has been and it has yet to remain slightly consistent to this point in the season. The pitching staff is aging and there is no clear-cut positive force in the clubhouse to make things as loose as they were when Kevin Millar was around.
Matsuzaka comes from a league where the transition as a pitcher is much more difficult that that of a hitter. The ball is smaller in Japan and therefore, theoretically, easier to control. The subtlest differences to the creatures of strict mentality and habit that are pitchers make or break performance.
In eight years for the Seibu Lions, Matsuzaka racked up an impressive [108-60] record with ERA’s that never went above 3.97 and reached as low as 2.13, a feat achieved his final year in the league. In fact, his ERA in his final four years with the lions went from 2.83 in 2003, to 2.90 in ‘04, 2.30 in ‘05, and finally, 2.13 in 2006. The progression he was making was undeniable as was the logic to pursue a career in the be all and end all of Major League Baseball in America.
But the differences, or the pressure, or the way the Red Sox changed his entire approach to pitching instead of letting Matsuzaka do what had worked so well for him in Japan, hindered his progression as a number one or two Major League starting pitcher.
The 2011 Red Sox have transitioned from bridge team to on-paper juggernaut, but the pressure, or the lineup differences, or the clubhouse differences have hindered what worked so well for these players individually before.
But aside from the complete meltdown of Matsuzaka on Monday, I still like him. Although maybe not as a top-three starter. And I still like the 2011 Red Sox. I’ll like them even if they don’t win another game all year. They’re my team.
But maybe the lesson here, if there is any, is that in looking at the grand history of the wonderful game of baseball; don’t count your chickens before they hatch.