NEW YORK — Back in the winter of 2006-07, it would have been unfathomable that Daisuke Matsuzaka’s first start for the New York Mets would have been anything less than an epic media circus, a sold-out stadium and enormous stakes for player and team. In those days, teams bid tens of millions of dollars, just for the right to pay Matsuzaka tens of millions more. He threw a fastball in the mid-90’s, breaking stuff that left hitters befuddled and the gyroball, a pitch that had a reputation similar to Bigfoot.
But part of what made Matsuzaka’s actual debut on Friday night at Citi Field so interesting is how much of a shotgun marriage it really is, long after the end of Matsuzaka’s disappointing tenure with the Boston Red Sox, who had outbid the Mets by offering a $51.11 million posting fee and signing Matsuzaka to a six-year, $52 million contract.
The Mets, down a pair of pitchers with season-ending injuries to Jenrry Mejia and Jeremy Hefner, need placeholder starting pitching to get them through the season. And Matsuzaka, who’d been pitching for the Indians’ Triple A farm team in Columbus with little hope of getting called to Cleveland, needs to prove that he can get major league hitters out to secure a big-league job next season.
Matsuzaka was hardly set up for success in his debut by the Mets, who needed a starter Friday night and weren’t fussy about how they got it. Matsuzaka had just pitched on Monday in Columbus, so he was making his first major league start of the season on three days’ rest. Then there was the opponent, the Tigers, the American League’s top offensive team this season. Any break he’d get from moving to the National League wouldn’t be evident Friday night.
“I was asked before we agreed on my contract, I was asked if I could do that,” Matsuzaka said from a podium at his postgame presser, after giving up five runs over five innings in a 6-1 loss Friday night. “I didn’t even have to think about it. It was an opportunity, and I said yes, immediately.”
So there they were, Matsuzaka and the Mets, paired together. And while on the whole, the night couldn’t be called a success, exactly, there were some encouraging signs. Really, though, the main thing was that at the end of the night, he was still standing.
It didn’t look like that was going to happen early on. With one out in the 1st, Matsuzaka left a 90 mph fastball up in the center of the plate, and Torii Hunter just destroyed it. Miguel Cabrera followed with a liner for a single on a similar pitch, and Matsuzaka’s cutter cut into the heart of the plate to Prince Fielder, who lined a single as well. The outs were loud. The foul balls were laced, drawing reactions from the crowd.
Mercifully, the inning ended, but Matsuzaka wasn’t fooling anybody. Ten of his 13 pitches were fastballs or cutters. That might work when you throw 96. It doesn’t when you are throwing closer to 86 and topping out around 90. Mets manager Terry Collins emphasized that difference when he discussed what had changed from the Matsuzaka he’d observed in his prime to the pitcher now employed by the Mets.
“Well, I mean, his velocity’s not the same,” Collins said at his postgame presser. “Back then he was 95, 96. The arm issues have caused velocity to go down a little bit. But, I’ll tell you what, his breaking stuff is still very good.”
Still, it took Matsuzaka another inning to get to that breaking stuff as his primary weapon. In the 2nd, he threw another 21 pitches, and 17 of them were fastballs, cutters or split-fingered fastballs. More line drives and gleeful swings resulted, capped by Torii Hunter’s booming ground-rule double to centerfield and Miguel Cabrera’s three-run homer on, yes, a fastball. Collins looked like Tom Hanks explaining the cutoff man to Evelyn in A League of Their Own — the second time, when he’s controlling his temper so she won’t cry again — as he recalled Matsuzaka challenging Miguel Cabrera with that fastball and a base open.
“Well, yeah, Dice-K knows he made a bad pitch the second time up [for Cabrera],” Collins said. “He tried to come inside on a cutter, too much plate. Pretty much same pitch he tried to make to Torii, too.”
Collins chalked up Friday night’s early reliance on a fastball that just wasn’t in evidence to nerves, and Matsuzaka agreed.
“Today was my first major league start in a while, and I was a little more nervous than I expected to be,” Matsuzaka explained. “The home runs, and the runs, the hits, that came those two innings woke me up, and from the third inning on, I was able to go back to what I worked on, it Triple A this year.”
He’d been pitching well in Triple A, with 61 strikeouts and 11 walks over his final nine starts, and that kind of performance seemed to be on display from the end of the 2nd through the end of the 5th, when he retired the last 10 hitters to face him. He threw first-pitch curveballs to all three hitters in the 3rd and Jose Iglesias in the 4th, then started the three hitters in the 5th with a curveball (to Hunter), a slider (to Cabrera) and a changeup (to Fielder).
Did he succeed with his secondary pitches because those hungry hitters were so eager to see the fastball they’d been mashing? Or can he actually win in the major leagues at this point by relying on his off-speed repertoire?
It matters a lot more for Matsuzaka than for the Mets. If he pitches well, he’ll be a free agent and find a place to pitch next season. If he doesn’t, he might not. But the Mets aren’t making the playoffs if he starts throwing nothing but gyroballs, and they aren’t likely to add him to their 2014 plans even if he does. They do, however, need him to keep on pitching, to fill out those innings, so Matsuzaka likely is going to keep on getting chances until the end of the year.
“When I first opted out of of my contract with Cleveland, if I could have had an offer from a team that was in the playoff race, that would have been great,” Matsuzaka said. “The Mets came, made an offer quickly and wanted me in the big leagues now. The decision was easy, I said yes immediately, as soon as I heard about it … My goal now is just to pitch every five days, and pitch well.”