By Sheldon Ocker
Beacon Journal sports writer
CLEVELAND: If the Indians’ marketing specialists had ever decided to hold a Guaranteed Win Day promotion, they would have settled on the confrontation Sunday with the New York Mets.
The visitors from New York are young, inexperienced and marginally talented. The Tribe took the first two games of the series without working up much of a sweat and had a right to think phenom Danny Salazar would keep the Mets’ offense in check.
Most of all, the Indians should have been excited to face Daisuke Matsuzaka — not because he was with the Tribe in spring training and spent most of the season at Triple-A Columbus — but because he showed no indication of being ready to return to a major-league rotation.
Then again, what seems like a sure thing in baseball is almost sure to backfire, so the Mets earned a 2-1 win in front of the only 13,317 sports fans in Northeast Ohio who weren’t preoccupied with the Browns.
Matsuzaka gave up three hits and three walks in 5⅔ innings and miraculously struck out six. He was charged with a run, only because his replacement, Vic Black, hit Asdrubal Cabrera with a pitch with the bases loaded in the sixth.
“Dice-K established a real good breaking pitch early,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “He threw strikes with it right from the beginning.”
Matsuzaka’s fastball often falls short of 90 mph, so it’s difficult for him to rely on that pitch. In spring training and at Triple-A, he sometimes struggled commanding his pitches.
And in his first three starts with the Mets, who signed him after the Tribe granted him his release last month, ended in disaster.
Until Sunday, he had not pitched more than five innings, and in his last start, against the Atlanta Braves, Matsuzaka gave up six runs in three innings. His ERA coming in was 10.95.
“I knew he was going to pitch well in this one,” said Jason Giambi, alluding to Dice-K’S former connection to the Tribe. “He was back to his old game of keeping guys off balance.
“You can’t get too dialed up against him. It’s hard to have a game plan for him, because he really cuts down your momentum.”
One of the things that makes Dice-K stand out is the glacial slowdown he displays every pitch. When he gets to the top of his windup, he holds his hands together seemingly for minutes.
Asked if that can be an annoying advantage for Matsuzaka, Francona said: “It can be. There’s some deception in that delay. He gets to the top of his windup and has that pause.”
Whatever Matsuzaka was doing baffled Indians batsmen, who had one real chance to go ahead after Dice-K left. In the eighth, they loaded the bases with one out on two walks and a single, but Asdrubal Cabrera bounced into a double play.
Salazar’s outing was limited to four innings, because he threw 80 pitches. Francona has steadfastly protected the rookie, and no matter where he is in his start, 80 pitches is all he is going to throw.
He gave up one run on four hits, walking two and striking out eight, but he was not efficient.
“The good thing is that he was real strong,” Francona said. “But maybe he was too strong today, He had a hard time keeping his pitches down in the zone. That’s what pushed his pitch count so high.”
Salazar had no complaints about his fastball, but he approached the topic differently than his manager.
“Not really,” he said when asked if he felt too strong. “I don’t think they had too much chance against my fastball. When I saw the whole lineup, I could see they were swinging late.”
Joe Smith staved off defeat temporarily when he entered the game with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth and retired the only two batters he faced, the second on a ground ball to Nick Swisher, who made a sprawling stop.
“I only have two pitches, a sinker and a slider,” Smith said, “I was trying to get a double play and threw the sinker.”
Instead, he struck out Justin Turner, who had homered off Salazar in the fourth.
The Mets scored the winning run in the ninth off Chris Perez. After Matt den Dekker led off with a single, Anthony Recker bunted him to second and with two out, Eric Young sliced a double down the right-field line to drive in den Dekker.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.