Earlier this month, I said Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka was “trade bait for 20 cents on the dollar.” In my opinion, he was dead weight, clogging up a roster spot on a terribly underachieving team.

But the team has picked up steam since that declaration, and he has been a big reason why. He baffled the Toronto Blue Jays two starts ago , and today improved upon that brilliant performance. In doing so, he had a tremendous chance to make history.

He was crushed against the Yankees in his last start, so though he was certainly capable of bouncing back against the Philadelphia Phillies in the season’s first batch of interleague play, I remained somewhat unconfident in his ability. Did he ever make me regret my doubts.

He worked around walks in the first, second and fourth innings, and hadn’t allowed a hit to one of the more potent offenses in the majors entering the fifth. Philadelphia, after Boston had scored the final four of their five runs in the top half, went quietly in that frame as well.

Matsuzaka needed only eight pitches to breeze through the sixth, acquiring the second out by swiftly covering first base, corralling an underhand toss from David Ortiz, and stepping on the bag just prior to Shane Victorino’s lunging arrival.

Having a no-hitter through five innings is a story, but Matsuzaka there is a big difference mentally, being just nine outs away from having his place in history. Pitchers start to sit by their lonesome at this juncture, on one side of the dugout while their teammates chat on the other.

A very disciplined pitcher who thrives for perfection, Matsuzaka remained focused, retiring the Phillies most dangerous hitters, Chase Ultey and Ryan Howard without much difficulty before his facing Jayson Werth. Potentially seven outs from being hoisted into the air in celebration of a no-hitter, it is necessary to have a laid-back persona that isn’t susceptible to tightening under pressure.

As his sequence against Werth suggested, he was far from stonefaced and consumed in seriousness, something some pitchers have been when approaching history. After tossing in a curveball for strike-one, Werth crushed a second, lacing it into Matsuzaka’s direction. With split-second timing, Matsuzaka reached his glove out and snared the scorched rocket off Werth’s relatively hot bat.

As Werth stared at the mound during his shocked walk back to his dugout, Matsuzaka walked off towards his. As he did, he stretched his mouth outward, gritting his teeth slightly as if to say “Whew! That was close!” His teammates and coaches that watched the play unfold laughed at his sigh of relief. Six outs away. And it was clear everything was going his and the Red Sox way with his cat-like reflexes.

In the eighth, it was third baseman Adrian Beltre’s turn to snare a hotshot and keep the no-no alive. With the crowd on their feet at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, some cheering on their Phillies and others cheering on Matsuzaka, Carlos Ruiz tagged a 2-2 pitch in the vicinity of Beltre.

Lunging to his right, one of the better defensive third baseman’s in the league secured the low line-drive , hopped up in an instant, saw that Raul Ibanez had drifted too far off first base, and rifled a throw over to Kevin Youkilis at first, in time to double up the dumbfounded Ibanez.

Two outs were made on one pitch, and, with members of the crowd and the Red Sox dugout cheering, Matsuzaka motioned into Beltre’s direction, giving him well-deserved thanks.

Four outs away, but it was not to be. His fastball’s velocity was mid-90s with late life. His curveball was fluttering. His changeup had impeccable tailing action. He had been unhittable. Then he was just nearly so. On a 3-1 count to Juan Castro, Matsuzka threw a curveball, a good one, down and inside.

Castro, a light-hitter with a .231 career average, managed to wait patiently and get just enough of the barrel on it to loft a looper to left-field. It was a dying quail, to use baseball terminology, and dropped just beyond the diving attempt of shortstop Marco Scutaro and just in front of outfielder Jeremy Hermida as Beltre, trailing the play, slapped his glove in disappointment as the ball innocently bounded through the grass.

The first hit, and the Phillies partisan crowd clapped in recognition of Matsuzaka’s flirtation.

The Japanese righthander finished the inning, inducing pinch-hitter Ross Gload into a lowly pop-fly to right. The one hit takes his performance off the list of top-stories and leaves him out of the history books, but shouldn’t diminish the fact that he threw eight strong innings , allowed that one measly hit, no runs, and five strikeouts.

His best outing of the season, an extraordinary start that he and the Red Sox needed. And one that makes me strongly regret doubting his abilities, abilities that I hope recur throughout the rest of the season.

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