Surprise! Dice-K closes out Cards

Matsuzaka's last save came when he was still plying his trade in Japan. AP Photo/Kathy Willens

NEW YORK -- Terry Collins wasn't kidding.

Fans may have laughed at his suggestion that there's "no question" that Daisuke Matsuzaka can close games for the New York Mets. Some rival scouts and executives may have scoffed at the idea.

Collins was serious, and he showed it Thursday afternoon, handing the ball to Matsuzaka in the ninth and watching him record his first major-league save in the Mets' 4-1 win over the Cardinals. While Matsuzaka isn't the Mets closer -- not yet -- there's now little doubt that he could move into that role.

Collins didn't make public in the morning his plan to use Matsuzaka in the ninth inning Thursday afternoon. He didn't even tell Matsuzaka.

Even catcher Anthony Recker was surprised to see who came in when the bullpen gate opened in the ninth.

But Collins had it planned.

"I wanted to put him in that situation," the Mets manager said. "I wanted him to get used to it. I wanted to see how he would handle it -- and he did well."

Collins isn't yet naming Matsuzaka his closer. Kyle Farnsworth still has that job, and since Farnsworth had pitched three of the previous four days, it was easy to explain staying away from him Thursday.

What's clear now is that if Farnsworth falters, Matsuzaka is next in line.

It's wild how fast all this has happened. Matsuzaka was a starting pitcher in Triple-A eight days ago. He made his second career U.S. relief appearance just five days ago.

He never thought he'd be able to be a relief pitcher, simply because of the time it takes him to warm up. Others never thought he could do it, simply because of a career history of walking too many batters.

But now here he is, the owner of an actual major-league save, with the game ball to prove it after a 1-2-3 ninth inning.

Matsuzaka said through an interpreter that while he keeps very few mementos from his career, he'd save this one. He also admitted that while he has always wanted to be a starter, he didn't exactly hate this new job.

"It's a different type of pressure from when I start," he said. "But I definitely enjoyed it today. It's definitely different [pitching out of the bullpen], but I think I'm starting to get used to it."

Matsuzaka had one save when he pitched in Japan. But it came when he was just 20 years old, and he remembered it as a three-inning save. It wasn't like this.

He's still not going to be your typical closer. He throws six different pitches, and Recker said they used five of them in just the 15-pitch inning Thursday.

"His biggest advantage is [the hitters] have no idea what's coming," Recker said. "We'll back-door it. We'll back-foot it."

Whatever they've done, so far it has worked. In 5 1/3 innings for the Mets over the past week, Matsuzaka has allowed just one run on two hits, with eight strikeouts.

He's the perfect surprise story for what has already been something of a surprise Mets start to the season. And as a 33-year-old veteran, he almost fit in age-wise into a game where the winning pitcher was 40-year-old Bartolo Colon and one of the Mets hits came from 40-year-old Bobby Abreu.

"I think we're back in 1999 right now," Recker joked.

No, but they are 12-10, and they just took three of four from the defending National League champions. Who knows where it goes from here, but who knew that Daisuke Matsuzaka could be closing games?

Terry Collins did.