Hard work pays off for Dice-K in return to mound

Hours before Daisuke Matsuzaka’s start against the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday night, a Red Sox official was asked what he and the organization expected from their prodigal starter after a three-month absence.

“No idea,” said the official without hesitation.

The answer wasn’t meant to be flip or disrespectful, but the Red Sox were very unsure what they were going to get from Matsuzaka, who took a bloated 8.23 ERA all the way back to extended spring training after being bombed for six runs in four-plus innings.

On June 19, the date of his last start for Boston, Matsuzaka was the target of loud, angry booing from the sellout crowd at Fenway Park. It was his eighth start of the year and one of his worst, and the fans vented their frustration. It was, most observers agreed, the harshest reception for a home player since Red Sox history changed for good with the 2004 title.

Tuesday night, after Matsuzaka had shut out the Angels for six innings before issuing a leadoff walk in the seventh, the reception was warm as the last one had been angry. The moment manager Terry Francona popped out of the dugout to head for the mound, the ovation began, building steadily as Francona took the ball from his starter.

As Matsuzaka began making his way to the dugout, the ballpark exploded in appreciation. It had been a long, sometimes lonely journey for Matsuzaka and this was his thanks. He doffed his cap in thanks, then was enveloped by teammates in the dugout.

“In the last start, I left amidst some boos,” Matsuzaka said through his interpreter after the Red Sox posted a 4-1 win, “so to be able to come back and experience that today was something very special as a ballplayer. If I could say one thing, I didn’t want to leave in the middle of an inning, but I’m very grateful for the fans’ response today.”

It had been a triumphant night for the pitcher, who attacked the strike zone, held the second-best offense in baseball hitless through the first four innings and consistently maintained the velocity (92 mph) on his fastball.

Daisuke Matsuzaka’s 2009 season, thought to be lost, may now be found — just in time.

For much of the last few months, Matsuzaka had been out of sight and out of mind for the Red Sox. They had a playoff spot to win, and they spent their summer chasing it without their Japanese import, who won 33 games in his first two seasons.

Matsuzaka had been placed on the disabled list in April because of shoulder weakness, but there was little improvement when he returned. Privately, the Sox fumed that Matsuzaka had been more interested in pitching in the World Baseball Classic — where he was again selected as the tournament MVP — than he was in getting ready for the regular season.

They cited the weakness in his shoulder as their chief cause of concern, but really, they were as miffed at his poor conditioning. Matsuzaka was out of shape, and thus, unable to repeat his delivery. That led to poor command, falling behind hitters and, out of desperation, extra effort applied to throwing his fastball.

Instead of improved velocity, though, Matsuzaka sacrificed control and found extended innings and inflated pitch counts.

He was sent off to Fort Myers, Fla., like a former honor student sent to summer school. There, he would have the spring training that he missed out on in February and March, occupied by the WBC.

There was solitude and lots of running to get his body back into shape. Much to his frustration, he was not allowed up on a mound for the first few weeks.

The Red Sox were pleased with his dedication and work ethic, but they were blindsided in July when Matsuzaka, in an interview with a Japanese journalist, questioned the Red Sox approach.

“If I’m forced to continue to train in this environment, I may no longer be able to pitch like I did in Japan,” Matsuzaka warned. “The only reason why I managed to win games during the first and second years (with the Red Sox) was because I used the savings of the shoulder I built up in Japan. Since I came to the major leagues, I couldn’t train in my own way, so now I’ve lost all those savings.”

Red Sox officials were livid, none more so than pitching coach John Farrell, who viewed Matsuzaka’s remarks as nothing less than a betrayal. Tuesday night, after Matsuzaka’s brilliant comeback effort, the same Farrell was effusive in his praise.

“He’s to be commended for the work that he’s done,” said Farrell, “in reshaping himself, getting his core strength. … Everything about the work he did on the DL, it showed up here tonight. His body control was better, and I think that’s just the result of improved core strength. He maintained a much better arm slot, and as a result, he got a lot of outs from his fastball. It was a big step for him and a huge lift for us with his outing here tonight.

“He did a heck of a job. If he didn’t commit to this work needed, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking about him tonight. But the fact that he did, on some very lonely outings down in Fort Myers, when no one else was around, that’s where his drive and his self-motivation shines through.”

After a few months spent getting back to fundamentals, Matsuzaka continued to get down to basics Tuesday night. Though he has a repertoire of pitches too numerous to catalogue, it was his fastball — crisp, with some movement — that served him best.

Boston’s rotation was largely set before Matsuzaka, and Tuesday night won’t alter that. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz will be the team’s top three starters in the postseason, but Matsuzaka may have staked a claim to the No. 4 spot, especially as Tim Wakefield continues to battle back woes.

“There’s not much left in the season,” acknowledged Matsuzaka, “but in the limited time and the limited opportunity that I do have, I want to show my appreciation to my teammates and the fans by contributing in a positive way.”

Basking in the afterglow Tuesday night, Matsuzaka’s lonely summer journey back to the beginning suddenly seemed worthwhile.