A year later, Matsuzaka returns

BOSTON -- It is mostly a lonely endeavor, much of it spent hundreds of miles away from teammates and other familiar faces and lacking the trappings of the typical major league existence.

It is often boring, sometimes painful, and always repetitious. It requires patience and perseverance, and an ability to fight past the doubts that creep in along the way.

It is the life that Daisuke Matsuzaka has led for the better part of the past 364 days. That life ends Saturday when the Japanese right-hander returns to a big-league mound for the first time since submitting to a reconstruction of his damaged right elbow last June 10.

Matsuzaka’s return dovetails nicely with the usual timetable offered for pitchers rehabilitating what has come to be known as Tommy John surgery. A year to 15 months of rehab is the usual prognosis; Matsuzaka makes it back on the front end of that projection.

He has made eight starts in the minor leagues as part of his rehabilitation, including six for Triple-A Pawtucket, after spending many months in Fort Myers working on his own with the training staff there.

Now he returns, with just over 3½ months left on the six-year, $52 million contract he signed with the Sox to great fanfare in the winter of 2006.

His tenure here has been very much a mixed bag: auspicious debut, first Japanese pitcher to win a World Series game, 18-win season in 2008, a disastrous turn in 2009, when the Sox in exasperation sent him back to Florida to work himself back in shape, and injury issues that have limited him to a total of a dozen wins over the last two seasons.

A pitcher once envisioned to be a top-of-the-rotation starter returns now as little more than a place-holder, a No. 5 starter on a team still deciding whether Daniel Bard has what it takes to be a starter. He has expressed an affection for Boston, but there is little indication that he fits in the team’s long-term plans going forward.

So this could be the start of what in essence may be a last hurrah, the final act of an expensive chapter in which the Red Sox made a $103-million-plus investment -- counting the $51.1 million posting fee -- in unrealized hopes that Matsuzaka would be as great a sensation here as he was in his native Japan.

What to expect from him Saturday?

“It’s hard to know,’’ said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, who was managing in Japan back when Matsuzaka’s fame there mirrored that of Michael Jordan here.

“It’s basically the anniversary [of the surgery], so it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. I hope he throws strikes, and I hope he has more than two pitches to do it with. I would be happy if that happened,’’ he said.

Those certainly sound like minimalist expectations, but probably realistic, given the time Matsuzaka has been away from the big leagues.

“Saturday’s game will be a special game,’’ Matsuzaka, who does not speak the day before a start, told the team’s Japanese liaison, Mikio Yoshimura, in a statement distributed to the media. “It’s going to be a very emotional day, but I have to remain calm and treat it like any other start I’ve had throughout my career.’’

Matsuzaka’s velocity touched 94 mph in his last start in Pawtucket, a four-out tuneup Tuesday, and Valentine said he has been able to throw his other pitches at times with some consistency. He appeared prepared to return a couple of weeks ago, but the team elected to administer a cortisone injection for a strained trapezius muscle.

“I have seen some of his games, I thought they were terrific,’’ Valentine said. “I would like for him to pitch like some of his past terrific games. I don't want to generalize on what he was, or can be. Let's just take it as his first start of 2012 and then we'll talk about it.’’

Valentine made no predictions on how long he expects Matsuzaka to pitch Saturday.

“We are going to go inning by inning and I'm going to check with him after the inning,’’ Valentine said. “Hopefully he will be able to get in the dugout before I have to make a decision.’’