ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Naturally, Daisuke Matsuzaka's first pitch of the night was ball one.
Naturally, five batters into the game Matsuzaka had loaded the bases.
Just as naturally, he got out of the jam.
Ball one, ball two and before you know it, you're out. One walk, two walks and before you know it, the inning's over and you haven't scored.
No one else pitches like this. Or, at least, no one else pitches successfully like this.
"A magic show," teammate Sean Casey said. "Amazing. Truly amazing. We're so used to it."
The numbers make no sense. For the season, opponents hit better against Matsuzaka when he threw a first-pitch strike than when he didn't. They were even worse when he started a hitter 2-0, and he was nearly unhittable (.083) after going to a 3-0 count.
Oh, and forget about getting a hit with the bases loaded. Including the first inning Friday, which ended with a Cliff Floyd groundout, opponents are 0-for-15 against him this year with the bases full.
"Get out," a disbelieving Carlos Pena said in the Rays clubhouse.
That's Matsuzaka. Too often, you don't believe what you're seeing.
|Dice-K's outing is 'truly amazing,' teammate Sean Casey says. (AP)|
Bases loaded in the first, and the Rays didn't score. First and third, nobody out in the seventh, and they didn't score then, either.
Maybe part of it was that the young Rays got tight in their first game on this huge stage. Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz thought he saw something different, while Pena said he didn't.
It'd be easy to think that's what it was, except that Matsuzaka has been doing this all year.
"When he gets in trouble, I don't think anybody truly sweats it," Casey said. "It's like, 'He'll get out of it, with a couple of nasty pitches.' With Dice, you think backwards. When he gets guys on, you're almost like, 'OK, we're going to get out of this inning.' And he's done it all year long. Guys die on base.
"You're like, 'Good, bases loaded, now we're in the driver's seat.'"
"I tell you, pitching will take you a long way -- more than hitting," Ortiz said.
And the Red Sox have plenty of it, so much that Matsuzaka is only thought of as their third-best starter, despite that 18-3 record.
Part of it is all those walks, five for every nine innings that Matsuzaka pitched. He was the first American League pitcher in 16 years with 90 or more walks and an ERA of 2.90 or lower.
"People just focus on Dice-K's walks, but I'd take Dice-K anytime," Ortiz said. "He knows how to get out of trouble. How, I don't know."
Here's how it happened Friday: He got that Floyd ground ball to escape the first. He got Dioner Navarro on a shallow fly ball, then struck out Gabe Gross and got Jason Bartlett to ground out to finish the seventh.
By that point, Matsuzaka had thrown 107 pitches, and it was easy to assume his night was done. The Red Sox sent him back out for the eighth, because he still looked strong. Also, pitching coach John Farrell said they wanted Matsuzaka to get them past B.J. Upton, so that they could use Hideki Okajima and Justin Masterson to match up against the middle-of-the-order hitters who followed.
Okajima retired Pena, who swung at a 3-0 pitch. Masterson got Evan Longoria to ground into a double play.
The Rays, who were 8-1 against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field this year, were suddenly 0-1 against them in the ALCS. The Sox, who blew late-inning leads four times this year at the Trop, held on to this one.
"The regular season is totally different from the playoffs," Ortiz said. "I'm telling you, I saw faces tonight that are different from what I see in the regular season. I don't blame anybody. There's a lot of pressure out there.
"I don't know if they were tight, but in those situations where they've come back, it wasn't there tonight. I really saw that. But it's their first time in the playoffs, and you can't blame them."
Pena, the 30-year-old who counts as a Rays veteran, seemed to be wondering if that was indeed the case. He decided that it wasn't.
"I talked to a couple of guys after the game," Pena said. "Obviously we're disappointed that we lost, but I was pleased to see we had guys still smiling, guys still understanding that you're not going to win them all. This is a series. This is not just a one-game playoff.
"We did lose some games during the regular season, so we know it's possible."
They know that twice in September, they lost the first game of a series against the Red Sox, only to come back and win the next two nights. They've pulled off some magic of their own, these Rays.
Just like the pitcher who beat them Friday night.
"This is a guy who has like 45 pitches," Pena said. "To be honest, I don't even know how (Jason) Varitek can give the signs. Very interesting pitcher."
Interesting, all right. It's not every night you get to see a baseball game and a magic show, all in one.