A sharp Dice-K opens new possibilities

BOSTON -- Bobby Valentine stressed that the trade that shook the Red Sox organization to its core was an opportunity for jobs to be had. Specifically, he alluded to first base, where James Loney will get a chance to impress, and the bench, now vacated by utility man Nick Punto. Left field is being manned for now by Scott Podsednik, but it figures to be up for grabs going forward.

And then there’s the beleaguered starting rotation. A betting man would put big money on Daisuke Matsuzaka being out of that equation for 2013. Entering Monday, Matsuzaka had gone 16-18 with a 5.17 ERA since the start of the 2009 season. He has made almost $37 million in that span, during which he has been on the disabled list several times.

However, beyond Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, nothing is set in stone for next season. Felix Doubront figures to build upon his first full year. John Lackey returns from Tommy John surgery. That isn’t much, and even if they perform well, then what? Well, perhaps, with a short contract on the lighter side, both in terms of years and dollars, Matsuzaka will be considered.

Outings such as the one he had Monday against Kansas City cannot hurt his cause. In his first start since July 3, Matsuzaka picked up his first win in 457 days with seven strong innings. He allowed only an unearned run on five hits and two walks while striking out six, looking quite strong along the way.

“My body right now feels a lot better than it did before I had Tommy John and my body definitely feels better than it did back in June,” Matsuzaka said through interpreter Jeff Cutler.

June was when Matsuzaka returned, almost exactly one year to the day from surgery. He threw so-so for the rest of the month before a neck strain forced him on the disabled list in July.

Collectively, Red Sox fans groaned. They’ve been there before with Matsuzaka, so far removed from his 18-win 2008 campaign and so riddled with physical maladies that any thought of him being involved in the future might seem ill-conceived.

However, the Matsuzaka that appeared Monday was one who was, as he asserts, finally fully recovered from the procedure. He said his body did not respond the way he had hoped when he came back in June. Evidence of a stronger pitcher lies not only in the seven dominant innings but in the stuff.

“When you’re at full strength there’s a finish and life to [the pitches] that I think he’s gotten back,” pitching coach Randy Niemann said.

There is a notion that pitchers who return from Tommy John see an uptick in arm strength, and thus velocity. Matsuzaka topped out at 93 mph on Monday, about the norm for his top speed. His heater averaged around 91, again rather average for the right-hander. But it is that late life that once made Matsuzaka effective, and did so again from time to time over the bad years.

Matsuzaka has also found hope from the performance of his countryman in the bullpen, Junichi Tazawa, who has also shown exceptional life and an increase in velocity as he toils in his second year post-Tommy John.

“It’s also very encouraging to watch [Junichi] Tazawa and watch his struggles last year and see him come back strong this season,” Matsuzaka said of the right-handed reliever, who missed all of 2010 following the procedure.

Tazawa had mixed results in the minors and just a cup of coffee in the majors last year. In 2012, he has posted a 1.61 ERA in 21 games out of the Red Sox bullpen. Tazawa’s fastball was clocked at 97 mph in his most recent appearance Saturday night, far above his career norms.

“It’s very encouraging,” Matsuzaka said.

Because of his experience with Japanese players while managing in that country, Bobby Valentine was thought to be a guy that could connect with Matsuzaka and perhaps bring out the best in him. Valentine certainly plans to give Matsuzaka every opportunity to show his best down the stretch.

“I’m very encouraged,” Valentine said. “He’s going to get another start, two, three, four, five. He might finish strong. Throwing like that, he has a chance.”

Again, it’s not as if the Red Sox are flush with pitching right now. For perspective, Monday marked just the seventh time this season that a Boston starter has gone seven or more innings without allowing an earned run. Clay Buchholz is the only one to do it twice. Matsuzaka has accomplished it as many times as Lester and Josh Beckett.

The man on the receiving end had high praise.

“He’s been coming back from surgery, so it’s going to be a process of getting that feeling back, and getting your sharpness back, and everything feeling good. But today was really good,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. When asked about possibly having a sharp Matsuzaka for the rest of the season, Saltalamachhia responded, “That’d be great. You know, like I said, pitching and defense. If we can add a guy like Dice and he stays healthy, you know that’s what we want.”

Perhaps the organization will be singing that tune this offseason. Perhaps.