"It stinks when he comes in and deals against us," Indians reliever Joe Smith said, "when we've had him the whole year."
Released by the Indians less than three weeks ago, Matsuzaka gave New York a solid outing to send Cleveland on its way to a 2-1 loss in the finale of the Interleague set. The Tribe's offense could not come through in a handful of key situations, and the result was a quiet ending to a modest four-game winning streak.
Matsuzaka tormented the Tribe with a fastball that became increasingly effective due to the sharpness of his breaking ball. The right-hander worked into the sixth inning, limited Cleveland to three hits and used his famous deliberate delivery to keep the Indians off-balance.
These traits were mostly missing in Matsuzaka's most recent outings with the Mets -- he was 0-3 with a 10.95 ERA in his previous three starts -- and during his stay in the Indians' farm system earlier this season.
"We watched him all year in Triple-A," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "This was the best by far his command has been with his breaking ball."
Consider it a case of two steps forward, one step back for Cleveland.
Things did not go the Tribe's way on Sunday, but the club did walk away with two wins in the series on the eve of the opener of a three-game division clash with Kansas City. The Indians fell to two games back for the American League's second Wild Card spot after the Rays beat the Mariners.
"It's nice to be greedy," Indians designated hitter Jason Giambi said. "But at the end of the day, we won two out of three. That's what we can do. You'd like to reel off as many wins as you can, especially in this situation, but that's a good Mets ballclub."
More to the point, it is a young Mets club trying to embrace the role of spoiler down the stretch.
The breaking point in Sunday's affair came in the ninth inning, when Indians closer Chris Perez allowed a leadoff single to Matt den Dekker, who was promptly moved up 90 feet by a sacrifice bunt from Anthony Recker. Two batters later, Eric Young delivered the decisive blow by ripping a pitch from Perez down the right-field line for an RBI double, putting New York ahead for good, 2-1.
Giambi tried to ignite a comeback in the ninth with a bloop single down the left-field line, marking the 2,000th hit of his career. Pinch-runner Mike Aviles took over on the basepaths, however, and was thrown out trying to steal second base, and then ejected for arguing the play with umpire Gary Darling.
"I'd trade it all in for a win," Giambi said of his milestone hit. "We needed to come back and tie it up."
New York's LaTroy Hawkins held the Indians down in the ninth to record the save, and that spoiled an otherwise solid afternoon for Cleveland's pitching staff.
Rookie right-hander Danny Salazar struck out eight in four innings, but his season-long restrictions forced him from the game after 80 pitches. Salazar's lone mistake came in the fourth inning, when Justin Turner pulled a 96-mph fastball into the left-field seats for a home run, giving the Mets a 1-0 advantage.
"Turner just killed us this series," Francona said of the Mets third baseman, who had three extra-base hits and four RBIs in the three games. "But it was an elevated fastball. [Salazar] just had a hard time working down."
Cleveland's bullpen picked up where Salazar left off, stringing together a line of zeros through the eighth inning. That included a bases-loaded escape act in the eighth by Smith, who struck out Turner and induced a sharp grounder off the bat of Juan Lagares -- fielded with a slick play by first baseman Nick Swisher -- to avoid trouble.
After the strikeout of Turner, Smith exchanged words with the Mets third baseman. Turner apparently took exception to Cleveland's setup man firing a pitch before the batter was completely ready.
"I wasn't even in the box yet, and he was already set, getting ready to throw," Turner said of Smith. "Obviously, [it was a] pretty big spot. I didn't like that very much."
Smith shrugged off the situation.
"We're in the playoff race," Smith said. "We've been that team on the other side that's been out of it, trying to spoil people. We're fighting to get in, so emotions kind of run high in big situations. Whatever happened, happened. We just had to get out of that inning."
Cleveland did just that, but it mattered little in the end.
Over the course of Matsuzaka's 5 2/3 innings for the Mets, who signed him two days after he was released by Cleveland on Aug. 20, the Tribe's only run came via a hit-by-pitch. With the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth, Vic Black took over for Matsuzaka and hit Asdrubal Cabrera on the right leg to bring in a run.
When the Indians originally signed Matsuzaka before Spring Training, this was not the kind of Cleveland debut the team had in mind.
"I wasn't able to get an opportunity in Cleveland up here," Matsuzaka said. "But they are the team that gave me a chance early on in Spring Training, when they signed me. So all I can say is that I really appreciate that opportunity they gave me. Other than that, there was no extra motivation."