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Dice-K returns to different Red Sox

David Ortiz is hitting .160. Mike Lowell is a bench player. Jason Varitek is a backup catcher, albeit a surprisingly productive one. And now Tim Wakefield is a reliever.

Such is the state of the Red Sox in 2010.

"Some of those guys that were the identity of the team are not in the same roles," Boston first baseman Kevin Youkilis said Monday. "Other guys are here to step in. It's just different. That's why you say there's kind of an identity crisis.

"It's different to see the big guys who helped us win World Series (have) reduced roles. It's a lot different. But it's the business."

The same business all but mandated a return to the rotation for Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Dice-K says he is healthy. And when a $103.1 million starter is healthy, he is going to start.

Matsuzaka makes his season debut on Saturday, and more will be at stake than the outcome of one game against the Orioles. He's stepping into a vortex created by where the franchise has been and where it is heading.

In order to clear a rotation spot for Dice-K, the team dispatched Wakefield to the bullpen. Judging by the knuckleballer's remarks in Boston on Sunday, he isn't happy about the decision.

It was an obvious move, even if Wakefield has been a loyal Red Sox employee since 1995. Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz have higher ceilings. Wakefield has experience in the bullpen. The 43-year-old wasn't likely to log 200 innings this season, anyway, on account of his balky back.

But the demotion of a popular player - however temporary - can be radioactive for a clubhouse. There is one way for Dice-K to neutralize that: He must win, early and often.

As much as any other Red Sox player, Matsuzaka is the key to organizational harmony.

"Now that I'm coming back as a member of the starting rotation, I don't want to be any further distraction to the team," the 29-year-old said through an interpreter. "I hope that, all the way through the end of the season, I'm able to maintain my spot in the rotation."

Dice-K later referred to his absence as "a burden on this team," adding, "As I get through more and more starts, I hope I can begin to repay that a little bit."

So, he gets it. But that won't make his assignment any easier - particularly considering the team's performance to date.

The Red Sox were supposed to be a World Series-caliber club. Instead, they are an enigma at 9-11. They won on Monday night, but it took a football score (13-12) to beat a mediocre Toronto team. So much for pitching and defense.

The offseason additions haven't offered much. And less than one month after signing a $68 million contract, Josh Beckett has a 7.22 ERA. He surrendered eight earned runs on Monday and didn't record an out in the fourth inning.

Beckett coughed up six in the third inning alone. A Boston pitcher hadn't allowed that many in an inning since John Smoltz last Aug. 6.

You might remember that game: It persuaded the Red Sox to cut the Hall of Fame-bound right-hander.

Beckett, though, is the staff ace. Or at least he's supposed to be.

"A lot of balls in the middle of the plate," manager Terry Francona lamented.

Of all the staff's peculiarities, pitching coach John Farrell said he has been most surprised by the number of walks it has allowed. Through Sunday, the Red Sox had issued more free passes than all but two American League clubs. Given Matsuzaka's on-again, off-again relationship with the strike zone, he's not a great candidate to reverse the trend.

Dice-K, in fact, issued three walks in a four-inning simulated game on Monday - and he wasn't pitching around anyone. The three-man lineup included outfielders Jeremy Hermida and Jonathan Van Every and Ino Guerrero, an assistant to the Red Sox major league staff. (Ino helped by flailing at a few pitches in the dirt.)

But an optimistic New Englander (there must be a few) could point to the fact that Matsuzaka walked only one batter in 16 2/3 innings at Triple-A this year.

"Right now, when it comes to actually commanding the ball itself, I have a really good feel for the ball with my fingertips," Matsuzaka said.

"Physically," Farrell said, "he's ready to go."

We'll find out soon enough if Matsuzaka 10.0 will be better than last year's version: 4-6 with a 5.76 ERA and approximately 1,564 three-ball counts.

Matsuzaka has a credibility deficit in some wards of Red Sox Nation. He wasn't in shape when he reported for duty last spring, in part because of the World Baseball Classic. Twice, he was placed on the disabled list with shoulder strains. Then he was sidetracked by a neck strain this spring.

He has thrown only 59 1/3 innings for the Red Sox since the start of last season. At an annual salary of $8 million, he needs to deliver more.

Farrell said Matsuzaka is in much better shape now than at this time last year, with improved stamina and core strength. Good for him. Beginning Saturday, he must account for the lost time. If he fails, the Red Sox will be left hoping the jilted Wakefield has more innings to give.

Wakefield, who is under contract through next season, would like to retire with the most wins in Red Sox history. Right now, he's 18 victories shy of No. 193. And time is not on his side.

"I definitely want to start, I know Wake wants to start - it's a tough situation," Buchholz said. "I sort of feel sorry for Wake, not getting to go after those records that he definitely wants to get. ... Nobody expects him to be happy now."

Winning would probably help. And every fifth day, that burden will belong to Daisuke Matsuzaka. He'd better be ready.

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