With a thrilling escape from 27-pitch first inning and six no-hit innings that followed, Dice-K managed what no other Red Sox starter has been able to do in this postseason series -- quiet the burgeoning Rays offense.
"This has been a long season, and you try not to do anything different as games kind of elevate," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I don't know that you can really change what you do. The consistency of what guys do is so important. I think he will enjoy this challenge a lot, and we, obviously, feel great about him going out there just to see how good he can be."
Last season, when the Red Sox backed into precisely this situation, it was Josh Beckett who was asked to answer the call. Taking the ball for Game 5 at Cleveland's Progressive Field, Beckett hurled eight innings of one-run, five-hit ball while striking out 11 as Boston shrugged off its 3-1 series deficit.
With Matsuzaka winning an 11-2 pounding in Game 7, it was the Red Sox and not the Indians that advanced to the World Series, eventually bringing home the franchise's second title since snapping the so-called "Curse of the Bambino" in 2004. Now it's Dice-K's turn to play stopper.
Dice-K vs. Rays in 2008
"I'm not Beckett, but if I can pitch like he did last year and hand the ball off to the guys behind me, that would be great," Matsuzaka said.
Matsuzaka overcame early control problems to hold the Rays, who stand one win from the World Series, hitless for six innings as the ALCS opened at Tropicana Field, and he blanked Tampa Bay into the eighth and pitched Boston to a 2-0 victory.
That kind of length would be exceptionally welcome to Francona, who had to dip into his relief corps early in Game 4 when Tim Wakefield couldn't make it out of the third inning.
"For me in the next game, even if I have to throw a lot of pitches, I'm going to do my best to throw to quality spots and keep them guessing and keep them off-balance," Matsuzaka said. "But I won't be going into it [with] the exact same game plan as Game 1."
The Rays have scored nine or more runs in each of the past three games of the ALCS, and so far the only starter who has been able to hold Tampa Bay in check has been Matsuzaka.
TALE OF THE TAPE
|Overall||27 GS, 12-8, 3.49 ERA, 72 BB, 166 K||28 GS, 18-3, 2.90 ERA, 94 BB, 154 K|
|Key stat|| 166 K|
(10th in AL)
|.211 OPP BA (1st in AL)|
|2008||2 GS, 1-0, 6.52||2 GS, 1-0, 2.25|
|Career||2 GS, 1-0, 6.52||6 GS, 3-1, 3.98|
|2008|| 2 GS, 0-1,|
|16 GS, 9-3, 3.34 ERA|
|Career||11 GS, 4-4, 3.02 ERA||30 GS, 17-7, 4.10 ERA|
|2008||5 GS, 0-2, 8.73||4 GS, 2-0, 2.05|
|Career||22 GS, 6-7, 3.86 ERA|| 9 GS, 3-3,|
|Loves to face||David Ortiz (8-for-40)||B.J. Upton (1-for-13)|
|Hates to face||Dustin Pedroia (16-for-28)||Akinori Iwamura (9-for-24)|
|Why he'll win||Big moment pitcher||Seven shutout innings in Game 1 win|
"We're just looking for him to go dial one up tomorrow," Francona said. "Believe me when I tell you, how he pitches this, the intensity, the meaning, as much as this game means, that will help him. That won't hinder him. "
Boston's victories leader with 18 wins during the regular season, Matsuzaka has shown a flair for the dramatic by pacing the American League with 92 walks, but limiting opponents to a .164 batting average with runners in scoring position -- best in the Majors.
"There's been some inconsistencies in the way he's thrown the ball," Francona said. "But if you take wins, losses, hits per innings, I'll bet you there's about 29 other teams that would jump on it and say we'll take it. He's been phenomenal for us."
That tenacity was no better displayed than in the first inning of Game 1, when Matsuzaka walked the bases loaded and evaded early trouble -- just 12 of his first 27 offerings were strikes -- to pitch into the eighth inning.
"He never gives in," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's always going to attempt to make his pitch. To his credit and for us, you just have to mentally match him pitch for pitch because he does not give anything at any time, and I really appreciate that about him.
"He's very calm, he's very confident and he's good. With him, he's going to try to adjust to us, again, and we have to just really watch what's going on out there primarily. And with him, you also have to take advantage of those situations. He's very good at winning out of that. If we get him in those moments, we have to take advantage of it."
The first-inning missed opportunity for the Rays continued an impressive trend for Matsuzaka, who held opponents hitless in 14 bases-loaded at-bats during the regular season.
"He has some experience," catcher Jason Varitek said. "It still comes down to executing what he needs to do and what he wants to do. He's a man that has been in a lot of big spots his whole life. I look forward to him going out there and giving us a real strong competitive start."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.