BOSTON -- At about 4:05 p.m. Saturday all eyes in Fenway Park were on Daisuke Matsuzaka, his red glove and his matching hair. Roughly two hours later, many of them were on Washington Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez. Or a Celtics pregame show, depending on interest level.
In his first start since May 16, 2011, Matsuzaka was OK, allowing four runs in five innings while striking out eight and walking only one. But Gonzalez reminded the Red Sox that the Nationals have loads of pitching.
A day after Stephen Strasburg struck out 13 Boston batters in six frames, Gonzalez limited the Sox to just three hits in 6 1/3 innings of a 4-2 Nationals victory. He did not get much help from his bullpen, which allowed two inherited runners to cross in the seventh, muddying Gonzalez’s line.
But what about Matsuzaka?: Good question. His return is rather important considering that this does not figure to be a one-and-done thing. Matsuzaka will be given every opportunity to work out of the rotation for the remainder of the season.
Matsuzaka certainly did not give the Red Sox any reason to run away from him. Four runs in five innings is not pretty, but eight strikeouts against just one walk is. And Washington’s three-run rally in the fourth came after a potential double-play ball squirted through for a hit (more on that below).
Matsuzaka’s slider was very good. He used it to finish off his first two strikeouts in a 1-2-3 first inning. He froze Bryce Harper with a sharp fastball on his final pitch of the afternoon.
With two days off in the next nine days, the Sox could get away with not starting Matsuzaka again until June 24. That would not make much sense, however. He needs to continue to build up his strength and giving the starters a full five days of rest between starts could prove helpful down the stretch.
Step aside, Jon. Almost: For all the ups and downs of Matsuzaka’s Red Sox career, he has always been a guy who can get strikeouts. In fact, he entered this one ranked fifth in franchise history in Ks per nine innings, and with eight in five innings he nearly passed Lester, who sits in fourth. Lester fans one batter every 8.264 innings. Matsuzaka is at one per 8.259. Pedro Martinez, Dick Radatz and Roger Clemens are the top three in that category.
Slamming the door: After giving up a leadoff double to Rick Ankiel in the fifth, Matsuzaka got the next three in order. That began a run of 15 straight outs for Red Sox pitchers to close the game.
Having fits at .500: The Red Sox are 2-7 in games in which they had a chance to move above .500 (including Opening Day). The last time they were below the break-even point this late into a season was 2001. As long as Boston remains near .500 you will hear that line again; the Sox were 77-79 on Oct. 2 of that year before ending the season with five straight wins.
Bryce on the bases: Those itching to see Harper do his thing were treated to his long home run in Friday’s opener. In the fourth inning Saturday he showed another side of his game -- brashness on the base paths.
Harper opened the fourth with a four-pitch walk. He drew a pickoff attempt from Matsuzaka and another from catcher Kelly Shoppach before Ryan Zimmerman singled to left past shortstop Mike Aviles, who had been cheating toward second in preparation for Harper’s arrival.
At Fenway Park, if there is a base hit to left, the runner on first very rarely even thinks of anything beyond second base, even if they’re off on the pitch. Harper seemed to think of nothing but third. He rounded second without hesitation and made it to third without a throw. Daniel Nava bobbled the ball in left but only after he looked up and saw Harper well on his way.
It’s the little things: That aggressiveness by Harper might go unnoticed by the casual observer, but it was the key in the decisive rally. Had Aviles been in position (or had he been quicker to react to Zimmerman’s hit instead of moving like his feet were stuck in cement), it might have been a 6-4-3 double play. And had it been a 6-4-3 double play we might be talking about a pretty impressive line by Matsuzaka.
Adventures in right field: A colleague in the press box alertly said when Michael Morse’s double to right in the fourth bounced into the stands that it was a good thing for the Red Sox, but not just because it held a runner at third base. The hop meant right fielder Adrian Gonzalez did not need to play one of those rolling balls that worms its way along the wacky wall, often getting past ill-prepared right fielders at Fenway.
Perhaps inspired by such cynicism, Gonzalez made one of the better defensive plays of the game moments later, sliding to grab a sinking liner off the bat of Danny Espinosa, then throwing in to double up the runner at first. That ended the last legitimate threat for the Nats.
Interestingly enough there was another ball ticketed for that tricky corner one inning later. This time an ill-advised fan with a glove reached over and scooped up the fair ball. Knowing he had made a mistake worthy of ejection from the park, the fan dropped the ball back onto the field. That’ll fool 'em!
He was ushered from his seat minutes later with no souvenir and an abbreviated afternoon at the park.
Home unsweet home: After scratching and clawing for five hits Saturday, the Red Sox are batting .234 (40-for-171) on their current homestand.
Tough times for Pedroia: Dustin Pedroia managed an infield hit on a 50-foot dribbler, but he is just 2-for-20 (.100) with seven strikeouts since returning from his thumb injury. In addition, he appeared to hurt his left leg trying to beat out the infield hit. Pedroia remained in the game but popped out with runners on the corners to end the seventh.