Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Matsuzaka Watch: Episode 24

In the heat of a fierce three-way battle for first place, Daisuke Matsuzaka took the hill against SoftBank, the team tied for second in the standings. Whoever emerged victorious tonight would hang onto second, dropping the loser into third place. Earlier in the evening, the Nippon Ham Fighters, who recently passed Seibu for the division lead, bested bottom dwelling Rakuten 2-1 in a game where they were out hit 10-5. It was up to Matsuzaka to lead the charge and keep first place a half game out of reach in the standings.

Daisuke started strong, with a 1-2-3 first inning, before giving up a leadoff double in the second to WBC star and former Triple Crown winner Nobuhiko Matsunaka. SoftBank's cleanup hitter has fared well against Matsuzaka this season, but his extra base start to the second frame went wasted as his teammates went down in order to close a scoreless inning. Seibu strung together a hit, a walk, and two groundouts to scratch across the game's first run in the second. The third inning, however, was perilous for the Seibu ace as back-to-back two out hits spelled the first real danger of the game. Working out of further trouble, Matsuzaka got his man to pop up holding the score at 1-0.

The home team took Daisuke's cue and got some runs on the board thanks to a huge 2-run bomb from superstar Alex Cabrera, his 31st on the season. Getting the lead early for Matsuzaka has been a recipe for success for the Lions in 2006, and he didn't disappoint. Working a 1-2-3 fourth, Daisuke found himself in the position of having to pick up his teammates in the fifth. A leadoff error put a man on for the Hawks. As he's done all year, Matsuzaka retired the side in order, 1-2-3 stranding his man and keeping the shutout intact.

The Hawks are a very good team and did not go down without a fight. WBC shortstop Munenori Kawasaki, a slap hitter speedster, lined a single to center to start off the sixth inning. One out later, Matsunaka snuck a ground ball past third base to set things up for the number 5 hitter, Julio Zuleta. He made his chance count with an RBI line drive to center field, making the game 3-1 in favor of Seibu. The first chink in Matsuzaka's armor was made. Fortunately for the Lions that was all SoftBank could muster. The seventh inning returned to form for the young pitching phenom, as he retired the Hawks 1-2-3.

The Lions found a way to get an insurance run against SoftBank in the 7th, as they lined up a hit, a walk, an error, and a bases loaded free pass to raise their lead to 4-1. This was a sloppy game by both teams as SoftBank committed 3 errors to the Lions 2. The Lions second error cost Matsuzaka a run in the eighth as Zuleta was again able to bring a runner home on a ground out. No problem. Seibu closed things out in the home half of that inning with a huge RBI double by Cabrera for his 3rd and 4th runs batted in on the day, and his 99th and 100th on the season. This brings me to the lone troubling aspect of this ballgame....

With a 6-2 lead and the bottom of the SoftBank lineup coming to the plate, Lions manager Tsutomu Ito sent Matsuzaka to the mound for the 9th inning despite having thrown 132 pitches. It boggles the mind that Japanese baseball people remain so clueless to the danger of this kind of madness, but nevertheless Daisuke put the Hawks to rest on 13 pitches, ending things at 145 all told, and his 17th win. The final line was one earned run over 9 complete. 7 hits, no walks, 8 strikeouts. He's now won his last 6 starts down the stretch, and has 14 complete games on the year. The updated stats and ratios can be found below, as well as some video highlights at the bottom of the post. (click stats to enlarge):


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