PHILADELPHIA -- This is the type of pitching performance the Red Sox expect out of their $103 million man.
Daisuke Matsuzaka came agonizingly close to throwing a no-hitter, but the Phillies' Juan Castro lifted a lazy liner just out of the reach of shortstop Marco Scutaro with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning to end the possibility of a no-no.
"What can I say? I know all the country of Japan is hating me right now," Scutaro said. "Sorry, sorry. My bad, my bad."
Matsuzaka worked eight scoreless innings and allowed just the one hit with four walks and five strikeouts. He tossed 112 pitches, including 73 strikes, to lead Boston to a 5-0 victory over Philadelphia on Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park.
It was clearly his best pitching performance in quite some time.
No, the Red Sox don't expect him to throw a no-hitter every time his spikes touch the rubber, but the club wants more consistency from the right-hander. After posting a 33-15 record in this first two seasons with the Sox, 2009 was a complete disaster for Matsuzaka.
After helping his native Japan defend its World Baseball Classic title last spring, Dice-K spent the majority of the season on the disabled list with all sorts of injures, mainly a shoulder issue. He aired his complaints and displeasure with the Red Sox organization through the Japanese media, which enraged the team, including his teammates, manager and pitching coach.
Finally, after many discussions in person and over the phone, Matsuzaka bought into the Sox's pitching philosophy and spent the winter training at Athletes' Performance in Arizona. He said he wanted to rebuild his relationship with his teammates because he felt he let them down in '09.
Early in spring training this season, he suffered a neck strain, was held back and needed to start the regular season on the disabled list. There were questions whether he would ever again be the pitcher who helped the Red Sox to the World Series title in 2007.
Since his return from the DL, he had shown signs of progress.
But in his last start, against the Yankees on Monday in New York, Matsuzaka struggled, allowing seven runs on nine hits in 4 2/3 innings. Afterward he said, "There's one thing that I know for sure, but I'm not quite ready to share that at this point."
After his turnaround on Saturday, he still wasn't ready to share exactly what he's figured out. Whatever it is, he knows it was working against the Phillies.
"I knew all along I hadn't allowed any hits, but I also know I'm the type of pitcher that can lapse sometimes so I was expecting that they'd get a hit at some point," he said.
"But tonight, with the defense behind me, a lot of hard-hit balls were turned into outs, and they made a lot of tough plays. I thought to myself, 'Maybe, if it's going to happen, it's going to be on a night like this.' It didn't work out."
Jason Varitek was back behind the plate for Matsuzaka on Saturday night, which manager Terry Francona explained prior to the game was only because the Sox have a day game on Sunday and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is pitching, so Boston's regular starting catcher, Victor Martinez, was given the night off.
In two starts this season with Varitek behind the plate, Matsuzaka has given up just one run in 15 innings. In three starts with Martinez as his backstop, he has an 11.05 ERA. With such a big disparity, the question remains as to whether the Red Sox would be better off with Varitek catching Matsuzaka on a more permanent basis.
"People have to understand one thing," Varitek snapped when asked about it after the game. "If you start doing that, as a team it puts ourselves and our starting catcher in an awkward position in that he doesn't get the right days off. I need to play when he needs to not play and it doesn't matter who's on the mound. If you start getting into personal catchers and all this stuff, I was fortunate today that Dice was powerful through the zone, and if we allow them to build together, it doesn't matter."
The captain has been on the receiving end of four no-hitters (thrown by Hideo Nomo, Derek Lowe, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester) and he smiled when asked if he thought he was going to be a part of No. 5. He admitted he realized what Matsuzaka was in the midst of during the middle to late innings.
"Obviously it was a very good performance," Varitek said. "He had some balls hit at people at some times, but he was very good. It helped we were able to get some runs for him and he was able to hold it."
Varitek said Matsuzaka was strong through the zone, saying his slider was sliding late, his cutter was cutting short and he was mixing in his changeup. Dice-K was keeping the ball down in the zone and had good life on his fastball.
After Boston's victory, some Red Sox players said that was the Dice-K they witnessed in 2007 when the newly acquired Japanese import first arrived on the scene.
"Unbelievable, unbelievable," said Sox first baseman David Ortiz. "To pitch a game like that against these guys is not an easy thing to do. Those guys looked confused out there."
Varitek wanted to keep things in perspective because it's a long season and Matsuzaka will need to produce many more quality outings before everyone jumps on the bandwagon.
"He's been pretty powerful in his five starts and that's a good sign," Varitek said of Matsuzaka, who improved to 3-1.
With any no-hitter or perfect game, the pitcher's defense has to come up big and that's exactly what the Red Sox fielders were able to do.
Beginning in the first inning with a line-out double play turned by second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Ortiz, the Sox made five outstanding defensive plays. Ortiz and Matsuzaka combined for a 3-1 play before Scutaro followed that up on the next play by ranging to his left to make a solid play up the middle in the sixth.
The tension and excitement were mounting.
Matsuzaka registered two quick outs in the seventh and helped himself out by ending the inning when he snared a screaming line drive back up the middle off the bat of Jayson Werth.
"It was Mach 10. That was the hardest ball I have ever seen hit back to the pitcher," Varitek said.
In the eighth, it appeared Matsuzaka started to think about the possibility of a no-no as he issued a walk to Raul Ibanez to lead off the inning.
Again the defense came through as third baseman Adrian Beltre made a spectacular diving catch to his left on a hard liner by Carlos Ruiz. Beltre quickly got to his feet and threw across the diamond to double up Ibanez.
At that point it seemed everyone in the ballpark thought they were about to witness history.
"I thought in the seventh inning when he caught that line drive by Werth, I thought he definitely was going to get it," Beltre said. "Normally when you get a play like that, it's a sure base hit up the middle. [Werth] hit the ball really hard and I don't know how [Dice-K] got it. After that I thought, man, this guy is going to get a no-hitter today."
On his diving stop, Beltre said he knew the circumstances and there was no way he was letting that ball get by him.
"You get a little more aggressive because you'd rather have an E-5 than a hit in that situation," he said. "You don't get many chances to play behind a no-hitter and you want to do whatever you can to prevent any little single."
The Sox's defense was excellent all night and it was kind of ironic that one of the softest hit balls of the night was the one to fall in. On Castro's lazy liner, Scutaro thought he had a shot at making the grab.
"I'd rather have a solid line drive, a clean base hit than a bloop like that," Scutaro said. "I guess when someone is going to throw a no-hitter, everything has to go perfect."
Even though the focus of the night was mainly on Matsuzaka, it's hard to displace the fact this type of all-around game by the Red Sox could be a turning point in a season already drenched in adversity.
"Most importantly we got a win and we did a good job and got a quality start," Varitek said. "We were able to capitalize on it."
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.