The Best/Worst of...To this point in the season we've seen the best and the worst of Daisuke Matsuzaka. Opening the year against Kansas City with 10 strikeouts and a dominating performance was a setting the bar a bit high for the Japanese ace as some bumps were bound to lie ahead. Matsuzaka did plenty to impress, and enough to win, in his second start against Seattle, but came up on the short end of a Felix Hernandez one hitter. That's baseball. The third start against Toronto was equally impressive, as Daisuke struck out 10 Blue Jays and allowed only 6 baserunners over 6 innings, giving up 2 runs. The Blue Jays start exposed something unsettling in the Major League version of Matsuzaka that I'd never seen before. He seems to implode from the stretch.
I can assure you that this was not the case pitching for Seibu, and I really have no explanation for it. I noticed it in the Toronto start, and my eyes grew wider and wider as his mechanics fell apart and his delivery became rushed and incomplete. With as much scrutiny on every pitch as there is in the Major Leagues, you can bet that the Yankees studied the situation and took advantage in the two meetings just a week ago. Matsuzaka looked bad in both starts and paid the price for his mechanical breakdowns. Still, it was the Yankees and the Yankees can make even the best pitchers look bad on occasion. Just as much as the Yankees were happy to see Boston go, the Red Sox starters must have been thrilled to put the boys from the Bronx in the rear view mirror. It was no picnic for them either. Then there was Seattle: Round Two.
Opening the first inning with three walks is just plain awful and inexcusable in the Major Leagues. That's Bush League stuff that should only happen to overmatched minor leaguers and Rick Ankiel. Daisuke has lost the plate, and doesn't look right. He has been known over the years for his flawless mechanics, and they have abandoned him. I don't know why, and I'm sure no one else has a good answer for it either. It could simply be a comfort level that he hasn't achieved on the mound in the Majors yet. A lack of familiarity with the way Major League hitters think. Whatever it is, he has to fight his way through it and get back to the 1-2-3 delivery that has made him the pitcher he is.
Looking at starts 1-3, Daisuke posted a 2.70 ERA with a 10.8 K-rate and a 6.00 K/BB ratio. Those numbers look very similar to his Seibu 2004-2006 production. His starts 3-6 have seen him produce a Kei Igawa-esque 8.50 ERA with 7.5 strikeouts per 9 innings and a 1.50 K/BB. That's the bad of Matsuzaka so far.
The good of Boston is also something to look back on. The fans of Red Sox Nation, and the team itself, have been brilliant diplomats for the US and great ambassadors for New England. The reception that Matsuzaka has received is beyond anyone's wildest imagination. Yesterday, on the NHK evening news, the worst of Red Sox Nation was on display. The NHK cameras were on hand outside Fenway and in the various drinking holes around town, as they have been before and after each start, and it was not pretty. Where the cheerful drunks had been on display early in the season, and the jubilant fans carrying Japanese flags and signs had warmed the hearts of the Japanese to Boston, the idiotic underbelly of the Nation reared its ugly head after the Seattle game. Drunken frat boys with their hats turned on backwards slurred their disapproval at Matsuzaka and Theo Epstein.
"We paid $100 million dollahs fah this??!! Whatta waste."
"I saw this guy in the World Baseball Classic against Mexico and Cuba. This ain't Mexico or Cuba."
"He's wicked awful."
Okay, so I made the last one up. I don't remember all the comments exactly, but the tone and the setting was unmistakable. The tone was angry-drunk and the setting was adrenaline and frustration filled bars and exit gates at Fenway. It was venomous and immature. I've seen the same thing in New York. We have our own fraternity of drunken numbskulls too, but we haven't seen them on NHK since the Irabu days. So far, no Igawa backlash on TV, but it's sure to come. The honeymoon is over. Matsuzaka has TV announcers discussing their disappointment in his performances, and disappointment that the love affair with the fans in Boston has taken a hit.
In reality, you're only as good as your last start, so Daisuke can go out and throw a gem and all will be forgotten. The drunks on TV will be of the rosy-cheeked and goofy-grinned variety again and the Japanese announcers will beam with pride. For now, the adversity has begun. It's what makes the human interest side of sports compelling. As a friend just wrote to me in an e-mail, had Matsuzaka come in and lived up to the impossible hype from the start it wouldn't be nearly as interesting as seeing him fight through the lows as well. I agree. That's reality. No pitcher shows up on the scene and wins the Cy Young with a 0.98 ERA. There's a learning curve, and we fans of Matsuzaka are lucky that his genius will allow him to meet that curve sooner rather than later.
Yankee fans have a different bag of troubles with Kei Igawa. The two Japanese pitchers have both struggled, but where Matsuzaka has had some trouble in the stretch with his control, Igawa's trouble is pitching up in the zone with truly mediocre stuff. Matsuzaka's problems will be worked out with better mechanics. Igawa's troubles stem from the kind of pitcher he has been all along. One good day, and one awful. It's a tale of two pitchers. I expect that Matsuzaka will be in the running for the Cy Young at some point in the next 2-3 years, while Igawa will be lucky to hang onto his job.
Here's to better days ahead and less of the bozos on television.