Daisuke Matsuzaka will be back in Boston just about a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He last pitched for the Red Sox in May of 2011. He's made six rehab starts, totaling 37 innings. He had a 3.65 ERA, 31 hits, 9 walks, and 30 strikeouts. He also had high pitch counts. His final rehab outing lasted 2 innings (it had been scheduled for 3) on Tuesday. He threw 40 pitches.
On Saturday, he'll face 7-2 Gio Gonzalez and the Washington Nationals. Even though the Nats are in 1st place, their offense isn't very good. 26th in runs scored. And thankfully for Daisuke, 22nd in OBP, and 14th in walks.
With most pitchers, some things to watch in their first start back are throwing strikes, working with rhythm, being efficient, keeping people off the bases, is their fastball fast and their curveball curving. Of course, Daisuke is not most pitchers. He can have a good start and walk 8 batters.
What should we expect from Daisuke? Frankly (and not surprisingly), my expectations are low. This is a guy who was brilliant for two years (33-15, 3.72 ERA his first two seasons), then ugly for two (16-15, 5.03 ERA). Any other starting pitcher developed normally in the minors would have been dismissed as a flash-in-the-pan that was figured out by MLB hitters, and couldn't cut it in the Majors. But since Daisuke did so well in the quadruple-A equivalent Japanese League, he still is expected to do well over here.
Negativity aside, there is at least potential for him to be good. We've seen it. And if he's not good, he can at least be serviceable, pitching 5 innings (with a 120 pitch count), and giving the Sox a chance to win. That's more than can be said for Daniel Bard, who Daisuke will replace in the rotation.
Bard will be making a start in AAA Pawtucket on Friday, as the PawSox face the Indianapolis Indians (who are the Pirates' AAA affiliate). Although it is technically a start, he will not be working as a traditional starter. His appearances will be short. The Red Sox claim that this is so he can focus on getting himself "back to being an elite pitcher." That's what Ben Cherington said. This minor league stint is about Bard getting back "on track."
In other words, Bard will be pitching short outings until he's shown the quality we've seen from him in the past. If he does well and Matsuzaka struggles, Bard can return to the rotation and give starting another go. If Matsuzaka settles in, then Bard can return as a reliever.
The Sox are being very diplomatic with how they're discussing Bard. They don't want to crush his confidence. They need Bard to fix his problems before he can return as a reliever or a starter. Matsuzaka gives them an easy way to be kind to Bard and say "We have 5 starters already, but we need your quality in the pen." It's sort of like a girl saying "let's just be friends." You don't feel quite so bad if she's already got a boyfriend.