"I hope I will have a better happy birthday next year," Matsuzaka said to the reporters upon blowing out the candles.
It was an obvious attempt at humor by Matsuzaka, who knows better than anyone that he's struggled mightily in recent weeks. Over his past five starts, Matsuzaka is 1-4 with a 9.57 ERA.
Birthday or not, there would be no better time for Matsuzaka's true coming of age to begin taking place than on Friday night at Fenway Park, where he opens a three-game showdown against Andy Pettitte and the red-hot Yankees.
Another subpar performance would only increase the speculation that Matsuzaka is wearing down under the rigors of his first Major League season. That is a theory, by the way, that Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek finds no validity in.
"Obviously, last game, he had a hard time throwing strikes," said Varitek. "His stuff was strong. That's a bonus. That's good. It wasn't like he appeared to be ailing. I think one thing has accumulated to another to another and to another, and it has created different monsters -- from [lack of] wins to everybody creating the notion that he's tired. Everybody creates these things, and little things go haywire, and now [critics] have support for them and we have 'panic mode.'"
But Varitek and the Red Sox aren't buying into the panic. They are just looking for solutions.
Without question, Matsuzaka's most recent start -- an 11-5 defeat to the Orioles on Saturday -- was the worst of his young career. In that one, Matsuzaka was tagged for six hits and eight runs in just 2 2/3 innings.
Be it Varitek, manager Terry Francona, Matsuzaka or pitching coach John Farrell, fatigue was not said to be an issue in that disappointing outing.
Instead, the problem was this: Matsuzaka relied too much on his fastball and, in fact, he overthrew the pitch at critical moments, leading to a lack of location.
"That's what happens when a power pitcher struggles," said Red Sox right-hander Curt Schilling. "A lot of times you go away from pitching and you try to get out of trouble by throwing. That [happens to] a lot of people."
After the Red Sox secured rights to Matsuzaka with a record-setting posting bid of $51.1 million and subsequently signed him for six years at $52 million, it was inevitable that all eyes would be on the talented right-hander all season long.
|"There's a whole lot more on him than I think you can expect from somebody. He's got Red Sox Nation, the nation of Japan, but he's not going to make excuses. He's going to make adjustments."|
|-- Curt Schilling|
So not only is Matsuzaka making the adjustment of learning a whole new culture -- both from a pitching standpoint and a personal standpoint -- but he's doing so with a massive amount of scrutiny.
"There's a whole lot more on him than I think you can expect from somebody," said Schilling. "He's got Red Sox Nation, the nation of Japan, but he's not going to make excuses. He's going to make adjustments."
One adjustment the Red Sox would love for Matsuzaka to make is for him to rediscover command of his offspeed pitches. Matsuzaka's best pitch, according to many scouts and insiders, is his changeup. Lately, that pitch has been absent.
"If you're able to throttle back and throw all your pitches again, that's pitching," said Francona. "And it's certainly easier said than done. But we've got to try to get back to that in those situations."
Before this skid, Matsuzaka was in the midst of a fine season. Following a no-decision against the Orioles on Aug. 10, Matsuzaka's record stood at 13-8 and his ERA was 3.59.
But then came the slump, along with all the speculation about what has led to it.
"When you say the [rough] stretch, I get a little hesitant to talk, because I don't think that's the way it is," Francona said. "I think there's been some inconsistencies -- not in a five-game stretch, but in innings of games. We certainly recognize there's some inconsistencies, and we spend a lot of time trying to figure those out, along with Dice-K, with 'Tek, with a lot of people. But I don't want to just put it into a nutshell like that, because I don't think that's correct and I don't think that helps him, because I don't think that's the way it is."
In an effort to demonstrate the way numbers can be misleading, Francona and Varitek both point to his start against the Blue Jays on Sept. 3, when Matsuzaka was touched up for 10 hits and seven runs over 5 1/3 innings. Just about all of the damage in that start came in the sixth inning. Matsuzaka had a 10-1 lead before that frame started.
"We had a big lead, he sat down and a lot of things went against him," said Varitek. "You can get tired in an inning. I think everybody wants to read more into things than there are."
Francona actually thought that start was going to end up being some sort of turning point before things fell apart.
"Again, I go back to that Toronto game -- he pounded the strike zone to start that game better than any start of the whole year," Francona said. "I think we need to recognize not just what's going wrong, but what goes right."
The quickest way for Matsuzaka to right things would be against the Yankees, a team he's 2-1 against this season, but with a 6.98 ERA.
"There's obviously better days to come," Varitek said.
"He's not going through anything that other pitchers haven't gone through," said Francona. "It's part of the learning curve when you come to the Major Leagues."
Matsuzaka's learning curve just happens to be anything but under the radar.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less