Dice-K's return something to build off

BOSTON -- Many might have thought Bobby Valentine’s “Welcome to Boston” moment came when he was lustily booed at Fenway Park during his team's April doldrums.

In fact, he became the Red Sox manager for real Saturday afternoon when he was asked to assess his expectations for Daisuke Matsuzaka’s return to the mound. In the hours before Matsuzaka made his first start in more than a year, Valentine echoed the sentiments of those all over New England since 2007.

“I would like to get it over with, actually, because I have no idea what to expect,” Valentine said.

Well put, Bobby. Well put.

But what about after the fact? After Matsuzaka put forth a promising yet uneven start in a 4-2 loss to the Washington Nationals?

“I didn’t like the four runs and I didn’t like the four balls to [Bryce] Harper,” Valentine said, referencing a leadoff walk that began a three-run rally in the fourth inning. “Other than that, I liked what I saw.”

Realistically, Matsuzaka has taught us to never make bold predictions. He can follow up stretches of dominance with complete wildness, often within the same game. He can look like a guy capable of winning 18 games with a sub-3.00 ERA, as he did in 2008, or he can appear more in line with the man who went 16-15 with an ERA of 5.03 from 2009 to '11.

For now, the Red Sox would be content with his being somewhere in between, especially when one considers the messiness of the No. 5 spot that existed when Daniel Bard was in that role. Bard now is in Triple-A trying to rediscover himself.

With that in mind, there is plenty from which both Matsuzaka and his mates can gain confidence. He displayed a vicious slider in the first inning, when he struck out two in a 1-2-3 showing. He got multiple strikeouts with his curveball and froze more than one batter with fastballs in good spots, including Harper on his final pitch of the game to end the fifth.

The eight strikeouts represent the most he has had in 35 career starts of five innings or less.

But therein lies a pretty good summation of how maddening Matsuzaka can be. Nearly one-third of his 106 career starts have lasted five frames or fewer. He was not expected to go deep into this one, his first major league outing since having Tommy John surgery, so he gets a pass. In addition, he gets a little something to help propel him forward.

“I think I did leave more positives for my next start,” Matsuzaka said through an interpreter.

The 31-year-old right-hander had gone 365 days since his surgery. One year to rehab, build up his strength and make one last push before his contract with Boston expires at the end of the season. Matsuzaka called his return a new start. Now he will have every opportunity to end his Red Sox career on a good note or to give the organization a reason to bring him back.

That is all down the road. On Saturday, it was about getting his feet wet and giving his teammates something for which they can be excited.

“Yeah, Dice was fine,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “He went out there the first few innings and was attacking the zone. It’s good to have him back. He worked hard to get back. He just has to build on this, and next time come out and throw the ball great.”

Valentine offered up a perfect appetizer to Matsuzaka’s return with his “I don’t know what to expect” line. He also provided a fitting nightcap after the promising, if not spectacular, outing when he called Matsuzaka’s stuff “usable.”

When you are 29-30, sitting in last place in the division and welcoming back a wild card who had not pitched at the major league level in a year, that counts for something.