Matsuzaka tames his wild side

BOSTON -- If Daisuke Matsuzaka were a super hero, his name would be … Mr. Enigma.

The Red Sox pitcher continues to be a mystery because you never know how he's going to fare. Not only from outing to outing and inning to inning, but pitch to pitch.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona was asked prior to Matsuzaka's seventh start of the season on Wednesday what he thought he would get out of his starting pitcher.
"I don't know," he said half-jokingly. "I'll let you know in six hours and hopefully not seven."

Well, six hours later the Red Sox had a 6-4 victory over the Oakland A's and Matsuzaka had his fourth win of the season, improving to 4-2. He worked 6 2/3 innings and allowed three runs on 10 hits with seven strikeouts.

What was even more impressive is the fact Mr. Enigma did not allow a walk. Yes, you heard that right. Besides a hit batsman, he issued no free passes. No walks. No bases on balls. His previous outing, on May 27 against the Royals, Matsuzaka walked eight.

The last Red Sox pitcher to walk eight in an outing and follow it up with zero in his next start was Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd in 1985. Now there's a comparison: Boyd and Matsuzaka.

"We call him the Magic Man out in the bullpen," said Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard. "You know it's in there, it's just a matter of it clicking for him. Sometimes it happens at the beginning of an outing and sometimes it takes him an inning to settle in and find that feeling. When he's on, he's as dominant as anybody. It's just a matter of getting him there. If he can get that little bit of consistency, and he's starting to find it, it makes a huge difference for this team."

The 10 hits Matsuzaka allowed on Wednesday were the most he's allowed since June 7, 2009 versus Texas. But it wasn't the hits that were a focal point of the outing, it was his ability to pound the zone and have complete command of his pitches after the first inning.

At one point, Matsuzaka had thrown 81 percent of his pitches for strikes, which, according to pitching coach John Farrell, is by far the highest percentage he's thrown at any point in his Red Sox career. He finished with 109 pitches, 84 for strikes (77 percent).

"Hopefully he's proven to himself when he does pitch to contact early in the count, he might give up a few more hits than he might otherwise, but the total number of base runners and the ability to use his defense behind him gives him a chance to be more efficient," Farrell said.

Farrell said it was clear Matsuzaka threw each pitch with confidence and conviction.

"I was thinking during my previous outing, that if I'm going to give up all those walks, I'm better off just trying to let them hit it," Matsuzaka said. "Considering what happened in my last outing, yes I wanted to be more aggressive about throwing strikes."

The first inning on Wednesday night began to have an eerie feeling to it when the moans and groans could be heard around Fenway when Matsuzaka allowed three runs on four hits, including a pair of doubles and a home run.

"At the beginning of the game, and I hate to say this, but it was too many strikes," said Francona. "He worked ahead really well and he got hurt when he was ahead in the count. If that's a problem, we'll take it."

The last time Matsuzaka faced the A's he had similar issues in the first inning, and after his one-inning performance on April 14, 2009 at Oakland, the right-hander landed on the disabled list and did not return to the rotation until May 22. He made six more starts before he found himself back on the DL until Sept. 15.

Sure, he finished the 2009 season on a positive note, going 3-1 in his last four starts. His offseason seemed promising too, when he spent the majority of the winter at Athletes' Performance in preparation of a comeback in 2010.

At the start of spring training, however, he suffered the neck strain and began the regular season on the disabled list. Matsuzaka has made it a point, and has said publically, that he let his teammates down in 2009 and plans on making it up to them in 2010. Even though his season has been inconsistent, he's showing signs of getting to that level.

"He goes out every time with the thought and intention to compete, to win and to keep us in the ballgame late," said Farrell. "Things haven't been as even-keeled as he has established prior, or that he would like. He's showing some outings of dominance and hopefully he gains some trust with the ability to throw the ball over the plate consistently and make pitches when he has to."

Matsuzaka's ability to produce quality starts on a consistent basis could be a key to the success of the Red Sox.

"When we have quality starts, we're usually in games," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "If we continue to do that, that will continue to set the tone for us. Once our offense settled down and settled in, I think it still comes down to getting quality starts because every time we've run into trouble we haven't."

Is Matsuzaka a super hero or villain on the mound?

It's anyone's guess. We'll see in five days.

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.