CLEVELAND -- Nineteen times this year, Daisuke Matsuzaka took the ball for the Columbus Clippers, hoping he could pitch well enough to impress their parent club, the Cleveland Indians, and make it back to the big leagues.
The Indians never brought him up from Triple-A, and last month he asked for and received his unconditional release before signing with the Mets as a free agent. Dice-K put up some ugly numbers during his first three starts in New York, but on Sunday in his fourth outing, he was excellent.
Matsuzaka pitched into the sixth inning and was charged with just one run. Though he didn't get a win, the Mets did. In the ninth inning of a tie game, Eric Young Jr. sliced a double down the right-field line off Cleveland closer Chris Perez, scoring Matt den Dekker from second and paving the way to a 2-1 victory for the Mets.
"I'll tell you, I was really happy for Dice-K because he needed this game bad," Mets skipper Terry Collins said. "He's a competitive guy, one of the better competitors you'll ever be around. For him to go out and -- after a rough start -- pitch a good game, I think is really meaningful for him."
Over 5 2/3 innings, Dice-K allowed just three hits, the first of which didn't happen until the fourth inning. He issued three walks and recorded six strikeouts, using 103 pitches in the outing. He spent a lot of time differentiating between a heater that got up over 90 mph and a breaking ball that typically stayed in the low 70s.
"My curveball was very effective today," Matsuzaka said through translator Jeff Cutler, "but overall I think all my pitches were better than it's been, which made the big difference."
"The command of his pitches was outstanding today, especially his offspeed stuff," Collins said. "He got the ball and worked quicker, and I thought that kept him in a better rhythm and allowed him to command the pitches better. But he pitched an outstanding game. Boy, I was really happy for him."
After Dice-K's exit, the Mets and Indians went into the seventh inning tied at 1. In the eighth, the Mets had two in scoring position with nobody out and the bases loaded with one out but were unable to drive in the go-ahead run. Indians reliever Joe Smith struck out Justin Turner and induced a grounder from Juan Lagares to strand all three Mets on the sacks.
A similar outcome awaited Cleveland in the bottom of the inning, which right-hander Frank Francisco entered with men on first and second with one out. In his first Major League outing of the year, Francisco walked Yan Gomes but induced an inning-ending double-play grounder from Asdrubal Cabrera.
In the ninth, den Dekker led off with a single and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Anthony Recker. After an Omar Quintanilla strikeout, Young came through with the game-winning hit.
"I was just looking for a pitch up in the zone that I could put a good swing on, and I got it," Young said. "Every game is important, especially to those guys, coming down the stretch. It was evident by the way they played and the way they used their pitchers today. Definitely a big win for us, being able to avoid the sweep and have a happy flight going back home here."
The Mets will return to New York on the heels of a 4-5 road trip that went though Washington, Atlanta and Cleveland.
The Indians got their run on Sunday in the sixth inning. After Dice-K retired the first two hitters, Jason Kipnis singled and Carlos Santana walked. That brought up Jason Kubel, who sent a liner up the middle that deflected off Matsuzaka. Dice-K could have continued, but Collins replaced him with Vic Black anyway. With his second pitch, Black hit Cabrera to bring a run in, but shortly after he retired Jason Giambi to end the inning.
The Mets jumped on the board earlier in the game. In the fourth inning, Turner led off with a homer off Tribe starter Danny Salazar for his second long ball of the season. In the series, Turner went 5-for-12 with two homers, four RBIs and four runs scored.
Turner's homer was Salazar's only blemish. In just four innings, he racked up eight strikeouts. Salazar also allowed four hits and a pair of walks.
He was not, however, as impressive as Dice-K.
"We watched him all year in Triple-A," said Tribe manager Terry Francona, who also managed Matsuzaka in Boston. "This was the best by far his command has been with his breaking ball."
"You knew he was going to pitch a good game," said Giambi, who got his 2,000th career hit on Sunday. "You can't get too dialed up against him, because he tries to control the at-bat. He takes his time. He knows what he wants to throw. He's a veteran pitcher and he throws everything for a strike. It's hard to have a good game plan and reel off a bunch of hits, because he really slows down the momentum."
Before the game, Collins talked about how Dice-K was looking forward to facing the team that kept him in the Minors all year. Afterward, Matsuzaka expressed nothing but gratitude toward the Indians' organization for providing him with a chance to play.
Matsuzaka signed with the Mets on Aug. 22 and was activated the next day. He got the loss in each of his first three starts while compiling a 10.95 ERA. In his outing prior to Sunday, he was tagged for six runs in three innings, and that got him to thinking.
"I think it was pretty much realizing that was the lowest I could go and accepting that for what it was," Matsuzaka said. "Once I got up on the mound today, I was really able to just focus on pitching and keeping it simple, and do what I'm supposed to do up there."
Mark Emery is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.