BOSTON — The hapless Kansas City Royals jetted into town Thursday and you could sense the ambush being set up.

Just when things are going well

New England fans know the drill. Build up excitement for the home team, only to crash in unlikely fashion.

Hockey fans experienced the ultimate tease with their Boston Bruins, watching a 3-0 playoff lead collapse into a 4-3 elimination.

Jittery Celtics fans watched their own 3-0 advantage melt down to 3-2, with an anxious Game 6 tonight.

And now here are the Red Sox, a team turning it around before our eyes.

Remember Monday, May 17, in the Bronx? Daisuke Matsuzaka gave up five runs in the first inning. The Red Sox rallied to take the lead, only to lose on a pair of two-run homers in the ninth.

Boston was 19-20 at the time, already 8 1/2 games behind first-place Tampa Bay and six in back of the Yankees. The bandwagon was in reverse and fans were quick to jump on, declaring the season over.

But starting the next night in New York, the Red Sox won 8 of 9 games, including a victory by Matsuzaka, who was four outs away from no-hitting Philadelphia. Boston finished its road trip Wednesday 3 1/2 behind Tampa Bay and two from the Yankees.

Which brings us to Thursday night at Fenway Park. Giddy Red Sox fans gathered to watch their team and the resurgent Matsuzaka clean up against the Royals, a team with little to cheer about over the last 25 years.

Thus the ambush.

Matsuzaka’s control was never worse with eight walks and a hit batter. He didn’t make it out of the fifth inning in a 4-3 loss to the Royals.

“Command was an issue,” Boston Manager Terry Francona said, almost chuckling at his understatement.

While the loss certainly doesn’t match the magnitude of a playoff collapse, it’s still a reminder that the Red Sox have much work to do.

Matsuzaka began the game with a two-walk inning. Leadoff batter Scott Podsednik drew a nine-pitch walk with three two-strike fouls.

Matsuzaka, ever the magician, got out of the inning, albeit after 23 pitches and no first-pitch strikes.

Matsuzaka needed only 23 pitches for the next two innings.

Dice-K’s no-hitter ended in the fourth on Billy Butler’s single to left. Add a walk and a hit batter, and the Royals had the bases loaded with no outs.

Watch Matsuzaka pull a scoreless inning out of his hat. Presto. Two infield lineouts and a flyout to center, and Matsuzaka was strolling off the mound.

“He wiggles out of it one inning,” Francona said. “He has a unique ability to get out of some of those situations.

“(But) it’s a hard way to pitch successfully.”

Boston took a 1-0 lead in the fourth. But the advantage and Matsuzaka’s magic act vanished in the fifth. His command left him completely. Kansas City took a 3-1 lead on one single, a wild pitch and five walks in the inning.

Matsuzaka threw 42 pitches in the inning, only 19 for strikes. After a total of 112 pitches (60 strikes), Matsuzaka exited with two outs and the bases loaded, leaving Joe Nelson to stop the damage, which he did, inducing a flyout.

Matsuzaka’s line: 4 2/3 innings, two hits, the eight walks (a career high), one hit batter and two wild pitches.

“We would all rather sit there and watch a guy pound the zone,” Francona said. “That’s a lot of pitches, a lot of baserunners, a lot of walks. You keep doing that, at some point you’re going to get nicked up.”

Boston outhit the Royals 9-4, but Kansas City starter Brian Bannister and his relief didn’t allow a walk or hit batter, so the Royals ended up with four more baserunners.

Tonight, while the Celtics hope to avoid a nightmare, the Red Sox turn to Tim Wakefield, another up-and-down starter.

Nothing is guaranteed, even against the Royals.

 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at:

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