Building the bridge: Red Sox bullpen passes first big October test in Game 2 win
|10.05.13 at 11:56 pm ET|
Koji Uehara electrified the Fenway Park crowd Saturday night.
Everything from his trot from the bullpen — most of the 38,705 in attendance stood and clapped along with his entrance music — to his nearly striking out the side on nine pitches to his eventually perfect inning (which required 11 pitches, all strikes) instilled a sense of prolonged excitement seen few other times this year en route to the 7-4 Game 2 win over the Rays.
“Man, how loud was that?” said David Ross, who caught all nine innings. “That was amazing. I just wanted to look up in the stands and take that all in for a minute. It was a lot of fun. This crowd, the first strikeout was loud, that second strikeout is as loud as I’ve ever heard it in a stadium. It was rocking. I don’t know how Koji could catch his emotions.”
But it was what preceded Uehara’s dominant, 11-pitch inning that may have been the most important feat for the Sox. Left-hander Craig Breslow and right-hander Junichi Tazawa, both making their playoff debuts, combined to pitch 2 2/3 scoreless innings against the Rays to move the Sox to within a win of their first ALCS berth since 2008.
“Each guy that came to the mound did a great job,” manager John Farrell said. “We were fresh. We were ready to go, obviously on the heels of [Jon] Lester’s strong performance last night. … They came in and made some big pitches at key moments.”
Each of those big pitches, however, came with big decisions on Farrell’s part. And as has become the norm in 2013, the skipper pressed all of the right buttons.
First came having Breslow relieve Lackey, who struggled with his command and exited after 5 1/3 innings of four-run ball. Breslow retired pinch-hitters Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez on four pitches to end the sixth.
The Red Sox started to tread dangerous waters in the seventh, which was arguably the biggest inning of the game with the meat of the Rays order due up and a pitcher not named Uehara on the mound.
Breslow hit James Loney with a pitch to bring up Evan Longoria as the tying run with one out. Tazawa, who had struck out Longoria three times in six hitless at-bats in his career, was warming in the bullpen, but Farrell stuck with Breslow, who has allowed one earned run in the last two and a half months. Breslow walked Longoria, thus putting the tying run on base, but promptly induced a nifty 4-6-3 double play off the bat of Ben Zobrist to escape his own jam, with second baseman Dustin Pedroia making a tremendous pick of a tough bounce yet staying in rhythm to initiate the rally-ending twin-killing.
“Looking at Pedey’s reactions, it looked like the ball took an unpredictable hop,” Breslow said. “But those guys are so good up the middle. If you give them a chance, they’re going to get one or two outs for you. I was just trying to keep the ball down and give ourselves a chance to get the double play. Glad it worked out.”
As dramatic as the inning was given the postseason stage, it was just another scoreless appearance on a long list of them for Breslow, who Ross called the team’s “unsung hero.” Breslow had a 1.81 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in the regular season.
“He’s got emotional control, even in some key spots,” Farrell said. “He doesn’t give in. … He wasn’t going to throw a 3-2 fastball to Longoria in that situation, representing the tying run. He doesn’t panic if he has to pitch around and put a guy on base. We felt the matchup with Zobrist, we wanted to keep Zobrist on the right-hand side of the plate. Fortunately he was able to roll it into a double play.”
Given the week off and off day Sunday, Uehara would have presumably been able to go two innings if the Sox needed him to. But Farrell wanted to stay away from using the 38-year-old in that capacity, so Tazawa started the eighth.
Delmon Young singled to center with one out to again bring the tying run to the plate, this time in the form of Yunel Escobar. Left-hander Franklin Morales was ready in the bullpen in the event Escobar reached and left-handed batter Joyce had a chance to do some damage. Farrell never had to pull that string. A 95 mph four-seamer from Tazawa yielded a double play nearly identical to the one an inning before it — Dustin Pedroia to Stephen Drew to Mike Napoli. The result was somewhat stunning, in that Tazawa had elicited just two double play grounders all season, and none in the second half.
“We were just protecting against maybe a scenario that didn’t unfold,” Farrell said.
Then the game was, in essence, over. David Ortiz added an insurance run with his second long ball of the night in the bottom of the eight, and Uehara — as much of a sure thing as the Red Sox have had in some time — pounded the strike zone in the ninth.
Joyce and Jose Lobaton both went down swinging on three pitches. Wil Myers watched two fastballs for strikes before getting a piece of one of Uehara’s trademark splitters to ruin the pitcher’s bid at an immaculate inning.
Two pitches later, Uehara induced two things: a Lobaton groundout to first, and another eruption from the Fenway Faithful. In the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index, Uehara became the first pitcher on record to record an inning of 10 or more pitches without throwing a ball.
“I don’t know if you can continue to come up with words to describe him. He’s been phenomenal,” Farrell said. “It’s one of the more comfortable innings when he’s on the mound that we’ll watch from our dugout.”
As Ross put it, “He’s on another level.”
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