So with Boston's season on the line on Sunday night, Matsuzaka took the mound at Fenway Park in a decisive Game 7. It was Dice-K's time to show his worth and help the Red Sox reach the World Series for the second time in the past four seasons. In those tasks, Matsuzaka did not fall short.
"I felt very lucky that this start came along and belonged to me," said Matsuzaka, following Boston's 11-2 romp over Cleveland. "But I also felt that with the momentum we had going into the game, there was no way we were going to lose."
In light of the offensive explosion by the Red Sox, it'd be easy to overlook Matsuzaka's effort. Still, his performance initiated the beginning of the comeback's end, sealing the AL pennant for Boston after the club trailed the Indians, 3-1, in the series. Thanks in part to Matsuzaka, the Sox were able to shower each other in champagne.
The postgame party in the clubhouse eventually spilled onto the field at Fenway Park, where Matsuzaka held the AL championship trophy while posing in front of Japan's flag. A few hours before that moment, Dice-K worked his way through Cleveland's lineup for five innings, giving Boston precisely the type of outing it required to advance to the Fall Classic.
"He did exactly what we hoped he could do, which was get us at least through the fifth inning," Boston pitching coach John Farrell said. "Provided we were with a lead, which we were, [we were going to] turn it over to the bullpen.
"I think on the heels of Dice-K's outing in Cleveland, it's much to his credit to remain upbeat and confident and know that another opportunity was coming his way."
Matsuzaka's last start against the Indians came in Game 3 on Monday, when the right-hander lasted just 4 2/3 innings in the second of three straight losses for the Red Sox. After that outing, in which he surrended four runs on six hits, Boston starter Josh Beckett promised Dice-K that another opportunity to start would come in Game 7.
"After our three straight losses, the team kept telling me to get ready to pitch in Game 7," Matsuzaka said. "I think everybody on this team worked very well together to bring us into Game 7, and I just wanted to respond as best I could to my teammates."
True to Beckett's word, Boston rallied to even the series at three wins apiece, putting the ball back in Matsuzaka's hand on Sunday night. He responded by setting down the first eight Cleveland hitters he faced in order in Game 7, and Matsuzaka finished with three strikeouts, no walks and two runs allowed on five hits.
"He was sharp, particularly in those first three innings," Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell said. "It's the type of thing where, if this were a regular-season game, he probably gives us seven innings tonight instead of five."
Five innings was all Boston needed in order to turn the game over to its bullpen, which included Beckett, if needed. In his first two postseason outings this October, Matsuzaka came one out shy of finishing the fifth inning each time. On Sunday, he was once against presented with a crucial situation before finally escaping the fifth.
With the Red Sox clinging to a 3-2 lead, Indians second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera stepped into the batter's box against Matsuzaka with one runner on base and two outs. With one swing of the bat, the Indians might've swung the contest in their favor -- much like Kenny Lofton did against Matsuzaka with a two-run homer in Game 3.
With the fans at Fenway Park roaring and on their feet, Matsuzaka and Cabrera enagaged in a prolonged confrontation.
Cabrera watched the first two pitches fly by for strikes before taking a ball. Matsuzaka then watched the Indians hitter foul four of the next five pitches off to stay alive. Finally, Matsuzaka's ninth pitch of the at-bat -- an 84-mph changeup -- tailed away from Cabrera's swing, resulting in an inning-ending strikeout.
"Well, I thought he pitched his heart out," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona, referring to Matsuzaka, who went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA in the regular season. "He gave us what he needed to."
What Matsuzaka gave them was a chance to reach the World Series again. After Dice-K's 88th offering of the evening left Cabrera wanting, the Red Sox pounded out eight runs to cruise to an easy victory, sealing their ticket to another Fall Classic.
"There is more to play, and I'm not 100 percent satisfied with my own pitching today," Matsuzaka said. "I want to address some of those things in my next outing.
"Not to make a big deal out of it, but the world's biggest stage is still waiting for us, and I'd like to see what I can do."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less