Dice-K too hot to handle for Pirates

Dice-K too hot to handle for Bucs

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It took Daisuke Matsuzaka an inning to get locked in on Wednesday afternoon. However, once he did, he put the Pirates' offense in full lockdown mode.

Matsuzaka had it all going in this contest, retiring 15 of the last 16 batters he faced. The day ended with Matsuzaka blowing a fastball by Don Kelly for his seventh strikeout of the afternoon. He wound up the winning pitcher in Boston's 7-3 victory over the Pirates.

In somewhat of a stunner, Matsuzaka (5 2/3 innings, one hit, one run, one walk) admitted after the game that the outing was a struggle for him. Perhaps it was the wind that whipped around the stadium, redirecting some of the cuts on his fastball.

What pleased Matsuzaka most about his day?

"That I was able to pitch [well] despite struggling a little bit," said Matsuzaka through his interpreter. "I felt like my pitches were cutting a little bit to the right ... so I had trouble controlling my fastball."

Struggle? The Red Sox would take such a struggle roughly 33 times from Matsuzaka once the season starts.

"If that's struggling, we're in for some fun," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I think he's a perfectionist like a lot of good players -- a lot of good pitchers."

With two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the sixth inning and Matsuzaka's pitch count up to 92, Francona removed him from the game. You'd be hard-pressed to remember that it was a road game for the Red Sox, as the patrons at McKechnie Field gave Matsuzaka a standing ovation. The pitcher bowed a couple of times and doffed his cap.

"It's fairly rare to receive a standing ovation upon being taken out of a ballgame in the middle of an inning," Matsuzaka said. "As happy and as grateful as I was -- at the same time -- I was a little bit embarrassed. I wasn't sure exactly how to respond."

At least from a numbers standpoint, this was Matsuzaka's sharpest performance of the exhibition season.

Matsuzaka hit the first batter he faced, grazing Pirates leadoff man Chris Duffy. If not for that, he probably wouldn't have been scored on. Duffy advanced to third on a pair of groundouts and scored on Adam LaRoche's single to right.

That hit by LaRoche was just out of reach of a diving J.D. Drew, who trapped the ball.

After inducing three quick groundouts in a nine-pitch second inning, Matsuzaka struck out two in the third and two more in the fourth. Then, he started putting away the Pirates with clinic-like precision.

"Each day and each game has been a learning experience for me. I'm having a lot of fun throwing," said Matsuzaka.

Jason Varitek is having a lot of fun catching.

"He showed some real good heaters at different times in that game," Varitek said. "That's the first time he's gotten more extended innings to where he's gotten stretched out a little more."

The most challenging aspect of the day for Varitek was when he had to explain to Matsuzaka that the Pirates were complaining that he was going to his mouth while on the mound.

"That wasn't on my sheet, so I had to show him. ... I have about a 10-word vocabulary now [in Japanese], so I'm slowly getting there. He's understanding quite a bit."

"There was a couple of times they thought he went to his mouth, but Daisuke's got some mannerisms where he'll go catch some perspiration from his neck and if his head is down, some people might think he's going to his mouth, but he's getting some sweat off his neck or his mouth," Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said. "It's just a matter of him getting a grip on the ball and not feeling that the ball is slippery."

Matsuzaka will get close to the 100-pitch threshold in his next outing, which is scheduled for Monday in Sarasota against the Reds. Five days later, he'll back down to about 60 pitches in his final exhibition tuneup in Philadelphia.

"I think he got to his quality fastball location earlier today than he might have otherwise," Farrell said. "We're, in a sense, splitting hairs when we're trying to figure out what was different today. As he gets deeper into Spring Training, his arm strength is continuing to build, and I think when you see that consistent location, that's a sign that his arm strength is building. The action to his secondary pitches was outstanding today."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.