Daisuke Matsuzaka pinched his eyelids, clenched his teeth and thought back. He could not remember all the details of the first save of his professional career.
After 123 starts during seven seasons in Major League Baseball, the 33-year-old right-hander was turned into a reliever by the New York Mets when they brought him up from the minor leagues on April 16. Eight days later, manager Terry Collins took a chance — a roll of the Dice-K? — and Matsuzaka responded with a perfect ninth inning on Thursday to cap a 4-1 win over the St Louis Cardinals.
He had not saved a game since May 2000, his second season with the Seibu Lions of Japan’s Pacific League, when he struck out four during the final three innings of a 9-0 win at the Chiba Lotte Marines.
“It’s definitely different, but I think I’m starting to get used to going from the bullpen,” he said through a translator.
Chris Young homered to start New York’s comeback from a 1-0, fifth-inning deficit, while Curtis Granderson singled in a run as a pinch-hitter and Daniel Murphy drove in two runs. Bartolo Colon (2-3) allowed four hits in seven innings, struck out eight and walked none, sending Lance Lynn to his first career loss in April.
Matsuzaka, who completed a four-pitcher, four-hitter, was a rookie of the year in Japan in 1999, MVP as his national team won the first World Baseball Classic (WBC) in 2006 and was given a US$52 million, six-year contract by the Boston Red Sox after they paid Seibu $51,111,111.11 for his rights.
Matsuzaka went 15-12 in his first season with the Red Sox and 18-3 in his second, but he injured a hip during the 2009 WBC and was never the same, hurting his arm and eventually needing elbow ligament-replacement surgery.
He was just 50-37 for the Red Sox and signed a minor league contract in February last year with Cleveland, who released him in August. Then he joined the Mets, started seven games and signed a minor league deal with New York, who initially sent him to Triple-A Las Vegas this spring.
However, when Bobby Parnell’s season ended with a torn elbow ligament on opening day, the Mets had to scramble to restock their bullpen. Jose Valverde struggled as the closer and Kyle Farnsworth took over the role.
Manager Terry Collins wanted to give the 38-year-old Farnsworth a rest after three appearances in four days.
“I just said this is a good opportunity to see how Dice handles it and he did well,” Collins said.
In a 15-pitch outing, Matsuzaka retired Allen Craig on a lineout to right after falling behind 3-1, struck out Daniel Descalso in an eight-pitch at-bat and got Peter Bourjos on a game-ending foulout to the catcher.
Collins said Farnsworth, who has two saves, remains his first-choice closer, but Matsuzuka may receive more ninth-inning opportunities.