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Pregame Notes: Bobby Valentine on Mark Melancon, Junichi Tazawa and Andrew Miller

04.18.12 at 6:55 pm ET
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Red Sox pitcher Junichi Tazawa tossed seven scoreless innings for Pawtucket prior to Wednesday's call-up. (AP)

Mark Melancon needed to go down to the minors to rediscover the form that inspired the Red Sox to trade for him in the first place. That much was apparent to all parties.

There was no injury (“We asked; he said absolutely not,” said Sox manager Bobby Valentine) to explain the pitcher’s catastrophic start to his Red Sox career, in which he has achieved both team and major league history with the depths of his struggles. Even Melancon seemed to recognize that his best chance of returning to the form that led him to forge a 2.78 ERA in 74 1/3 innings last year with the Astros was in Triple-A.

Melancon did not have a single 1-2-3 appearance in nine exhibition games during spring training, and quite clearly, after that slow start, he was unable to flip the switch once the regular season got underway. His 49.50 regular season ERA in four appearances, culminating in Tuesday’s yield of six runs on three homers without retiring a batter, made it clear that he needed to work to restore his command in the minors.

“He was anxious to get an opportunity to work more regularly so that he could get back to where he belongs,” said Valentine. “Mark just has to be the pitcher that he is. He struggled with his command. He’s a great command pitcher and thus far, he hasn’t had it. Don’t feel that he’d have the opportunity really here to work through it.”

And so, the Sox made the decision to option Melancon. In his place, the team decided to bring up Junichi Tazawa — who has minor league options remaining — rather than left-hander Andrew Miller, who is five appearances into a rehab assignment as he works his way back from a hamstring strain suffered in the middle of spring training. Miller does not have minor league options, and so once called up, the Sox have to keep him in the majors or risk exposing him to waivers. Right now, the team felt that he needs at least one more appearance during his rehab assignment.

“There was consideration [to calling up Miller],” said Valentine. “It was determined he just would benefit most from getting at least one other good performance in Triple-A. He’s coming off of a good one [in which he struck out the side on 15 pitches on Monday]. He’s going to pitch again [Thursday].”

With Miller not quite ready to come up, the Sox elected to have Tazawa join the bullpen. The right-hander has pitched in four games in Pawtucket this year, tossing seven shutout innings while striking out nine and walking two.

The Sox expect Tazawa to work “in a similar role to what Melancon was cast for,” said Valentine. “He could pitch to both sides of the plate and pitch any inning we might need him. He’s been stretched out a little in spring training so he has some length in his arm.”

He has been particularly dominant against right-handers, holding them to a 2-for-15 (.133) line with seven strikeouts.

OTHER NOTES

– Right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, now more than 10 months removed from Tommy John surgery, is continuing to build his pitch counts in extended spring training in Fort Myers. Matsuzaka will get checked by team trainers and throw a bullpen session for pitching coach Bob McClure and assistant pitching coach Randy Niemann before moving forward in his rehab process.

“[Matsuzaka] just came off of a 60-plus [pitch] performance,” said Valentine. “Before he revs it up to the next level of pitches he wanted to make sure the training room and he were all copacetic if you will –– on the same page.”

While he has had a very steady rehab course, Valentine said that a rehab assignment — which would start a 30-day clock for Matsuzaka to pitch for Red Sox minor league affiliates before the team would be required to call up the pitcher — is not yet imminent. Unlike Rich Hill — who underwent Tommy John surgery one day before Matsuzaka, and as a reliever, needed to build arm strength only to the point of being able to work one inning at a time, thus allowing him to begin a rehab assignment earlier this month — Matsuzaka needs to build arm strength to handle a starter’s workload before the team will be comfortable with a rehab assignment.

“A clock starts ticking when [a rehab assignment starts], so we’re cognizant of the clock ticking as well as where he is,” said Valentine. “I think it’s close.”

Kevin Youkilis is batting sixth in Wednesday’s lineup against Rangers left-hander Derek Holland, the lowest that Youkilis has hit that low in the order in almost four years. Since hitting sixth on July 22, 2008, Youkilis has hit in the third through fifth spots in every game he’s started.

However, one night after Youkilis went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts to drop his average to .176 with a .443 OPS, Valentine suggested that the 33-year-old might benefit from “just a little breather” by hitting lower in the order.

“Maybe just a little something different for him, you know, gets that one pitch,” said Valentine. “We’ve all been there. A bloop away.”

Valentine did praise Youkilis for the effort he’s putting into returning to form, though he deferred to hitting coach Dave Magadan and Youkilis on the specifics of his work, noting that his experience with the three-time All-Star is limited.

“I don’t have a good reference point for where he was a couple years ago and even what changes he made [to his batting stance],” said Valentine. “We talked a little in spring training, trying to explain it. But it’s a very unique approach that he has. I’m sure he’s just one click away. He’s working hard as anybody has ever worked trying to find it.”

Carl Crawford went 1-for-3 with a homer and a walk in an extended spring training game in Fort Myers. Valentine said his wrist, which was surgically repaired in January, is no longer an issue, but the 30-year-old is not yet ready to play outfield as he recovers from a strain in his left elbow.

“Whether he’s ready to throw the ball home on a base hit with a man on second, I don’t think so,” said Valentine.

– Valentine said he’s comfortable with the talent level and roles of the pitchers in his bullpen. He also said that he is comfortable letting reliever Vicente Padilla pitch on back-to-back days, something that Padilla has not done since 2001. Valentine said he as not yet at the point where he would want the right-hander to pitch on three straight days.

Read More: andrew miller, carl crawford, Daisuke Matsuzaka, junichi tazawa
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