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Dice-K looks to repel pesky Tribe

Dice-K looks to repel pesky Tribe

CLEVELAND -- It was a surreal twist on home-field advantage. The last time baseball was played at Jacobs Field, a swarm of Lake Erie midges descended on the stadium and pestered pitchers.

During that Oct. 5 American League Division Series contest, the Yankees were noticeably bugged by the incessant insects. New York reeled to defeat in the game and, ultimately, the series. On Monday, Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka may keep an eye on the sky to see if the airborne annoyances have designs on an encore.

"If there were those bugs, it would be difficult to maintain concentration," Matsuzaka said earlier this week. "But maybe it won't be a problem. The best thing will be if there's no bugs on the field, of course."

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Then again, Dice-K will have far more than bugs to worry about come Game 3 of the AL Championship Series against the Indians. First and foremost, the Japanese right-hander will be concerning himself with attempting to push Boston ahead of Cleveland in the best-of-seven series, which is tied at one win apiece through two games.

"There is a slight difference when you go into a visiting ballpark, having won the last game or lost the last game," Matsuzaka said during a press conference on Saturday at Jacobs Field. "So I feel that, in that sense, maybe I have a bigger responsibility tomorrow, but I hope to use that as a source of strength."

If Matsuzaka is going to lead Boston in that charge, he's going to need to regain the control that helped him shine at times as a rookie starter during the regular season. In his last outing, Matsuzaka's command wavered in an abbreviated start in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Angels on Oct. 5.

Boston catcher Jason Varitek said Matsuzaka needs to improve on his overall command in Monday's start.

"We just ran into a lot of three-ball counts, 3-2 counts, and he either walked them or something. We eliminate some of those, and stay out of some of those walks, he's probably got a pretty good outing."

Against the Angels, Matsuzaka was chased from his outing at Fenway Park after just 4 2/3 innings. The 27-year-old hurler toiled through 96 pitches over that span, issuing a trio of walks and registering three strikeouts. Los Angeles touched Matsuzaka for three runs, but Boston prevailed in the end, courtesy of a three-run walk-off home run by Manny Ramirez.

Matsuzaka didn't figure into the decision on that night, but he's only managed to post a 5-6 mark over his past 15 trips to the mound, dating back to the regular season. Included in that stretch, though, is a victory over the Indians at Jacobs Field on July 24, when Matsuzaka logged seven shutout innings to outduel C.C. Sabathia in a 1-0 Boston win.

The Indians did manage to get the best of Matsuzaka on May 30, when he yielded six runs on 12 hits with four strikeouts en route to a loss to Cleveland at home. So the Tribe has first-hand experience of the ups and downs that Matsuzaka went through this year, when he finished 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA over 32 starts.

"We've seen him a few times," Cleveland manager Eric Wedge said on Saturday. "He gives you different looks, a lot of different variety of pitches. ... I think he's a good example of where you really have to grind out at-bats against him.

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"You've really got to be disciplined and have discipline to stick with your game plan, not just the first time around, but particularly the second and third time around in the order."

Matsuzaka's performances against Cleveland strayed from a pair of trends he established in his first big league campaign.

Matsuzaka went 7-8 with a 4.02 ERA over 18 road appearances, but he made quick work of the Indians at Jacobs Field. Matsuzaka also turned in a 9-6 mark with a 3.14 ERA in 16 starts when facing an opponent for the first time. He performed much better in his second turn against Cleveland, though.

In the end, what it boils down to for Matsuzaka is how well he is controlling his wide arsenal of pitches.

"In a nutshell, I think it starts with command of his fastball," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said earlier this week. "If you can command your fastball, you can certainly set up a lot of other pitches. Sometimes you work ahead 0-1 with a good fastball and a mediocre breaking ball all of a sudden looks a lot better."

Helping matters for Boston is the fact that Matsuzaka enjoyed pitching at Jacobs Field.

"I feel the mound there was good to pitch off of, compared to others," Matsuzaka said. "It was a comfortable mound. It will be good to pitch there."

Unless those pesky bugs return.

"I did bring along some bug spray," Matsuzaka to an eruption of laughter.

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

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