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Living on the edge

Living on the edge

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BOSTON -- As much as any pitcher in baseball, Daisuke Matsuzaka lives his professional life on the edge. And for the most part, he is successful out there.

With a growing number of pitchers, pitching coaches and managers preaching the virtues of lowered pitch counts, pitching to contact, getting ahead early in the count, getting outs early in the count, Dice-K seems to be at the other end of the spectrum. He is a notorious nibbler, a pitcher who will not give in to a hitter, who will not throw a strike even when it appears that a strike must be thrown.

This would be a recipe for disaster for most pitchers. For Matsuzaka in 2008, it was a recipe instead for an 18-3 record and a 2.90 ERA. Last season, he pitched only 167 2/3 innings in part because of those soaring pitch counts. But over his two seasons in the Major Leagues, Matsuzaka is 33-16. His pitch counts may have been high, but his setbacks have not been many.

On Thursday at Fenway Park, success did not find Matsuzaka, or vice versa. This may have had as much to do with the opposition as with Dice-K. The Tampa Bay Rays are the defending American League champions. And they have an understanding of what might be a workable approach against the right-hander.

"He has a good fastball," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "but he doesn't want to throw it over the plate for a strike."

Matsuzaka can succeed even with this approach, Maddon said, because he has remarkable command of his breaking pitches. The way to hit against Masuzaka, the manager suggested, is to remain disciplined at the plate.

"You have to maintain your patience with him," Maddon said. "You have to stay structured."

The approach that the Rays took against Matsuzaka on Thursday appeared to be the right one. They touched him for four runs on nine hits in 5 1/3 innings. More dramatically, they hammered three home runs off him. One was by third baseman Evan Longoria, a genuine emerging slugger, but the other two were by players not known for immense power: outfielder Matt Joyce and backup catcher Shawn Riggans.

The three home runs allowed tied a career high for Matsuzaka. And these three home runs produced a four-run deficit from which the Red Sox would never fully recover in a 4-3 loss. Again, it is possible that this display of power may have had more to do with the Rays than with Matsuzaka. Maddon contends that Tampa Bay has more power than many people realize.

"People always talk about our athleticism and our speed, but I think we also have a great deal of power," Maddon said. "There's more power on this team than people know or understand."

Apparently. Meanwhile, Matsuzaka was piling up the pitches, needing 100 to get through 5 1/3 innings. (Tampa Bay starter Matt Garza had 106 pitches in seven innings.) There is legitimate concern about how long Matsuzaka can continue pitching in this manner, even though his conditioning program may be more than rigorous. He is putting some serious mileage on his right arm and it may not all be necessary mileage.

"I think he wants to be more economical," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I know that."

On the other hand, it is difficult to quibble with an .857 winning percentage last season or a Major League-leading opponents' batting average of only .211. So the Red Sox can strongly suggest greater pitch-count economy, but they will not issue an ultimatum to Matsuzaka.

"At the same time, we're not beating him over the head," Francona said. "What was he [in 2008], 18-3? That's not too bad."

When you win 18 of 21 decisions in a season there is not much need for detailing your shortcomings. Thursday was the rare occasion when Matsuzaka was required to explain what had gone wrong. He attributed his difficulties to a combination of not having enough life on his fastball and command problems.

The issue of pitch counts was raised again in a postgame media session. Matsuzaka said through an interpreter that an important thing to remember with him was: "I love to throw."

Of course. Somebody who didn't like to throw, if he managed to remain in this line of work, would presumably do everything possible to minimize the number of pitches per outing that he had to use.

Still, Matsuzaka gets it, he understands, he sees clearly the direction in which he needs to move.

"Right now, not being able to go deep in games is stressful, both for myself and the bullpen," Matsuzaka said.

And that's the core issue. An 18-3 record is the stuff of legend. And it would have been even more fully regarded that way last season, except that Cleveland's Cliff Lee managed to record an even more astounding 22-3.

Matsuzaka's average of 5.78 innings per start in 2008 was not at all impressive, even in an era when starting pitchers are routinely pampered. By comparison with two other AL East contemporaries, CC Sabathia averaged 7.23 innings per start last season, and Roy Halladay averaged 7.24 innings per appearance -- and that included one relief appearance.

It's paradoxical. The Red Sox got the victories they need from Dice-K, but they did not get the innings they needed from Matsuzaka. The competition in the AL East is going to require maximum output from all hands, as this opening series demonstrated with Tampa Bay taking two of three from Boston.

"They're a good team," Francona said of the Rays. "We'd like to think we are. It will be a long, interesting season."

No doubt. In the mix for the Red Sox, the role of Matsuzaka is extremely intriguing. In some ways he defies conventional pitching wisdom, and he does not get deep enough into enough games. And yet, 18-3. And you heard him say it, he loves to throw. Now all that is needed is for him to throw fewer pitches and more innings.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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