Sox bullpen slams door on Rays

Sox bullpen slams door on Rays
October 5, 2013, 11:15 pm
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BOSTON – Going into the postseason, most of the questions the Red Sox had to face were directed at their bullpen, more specifically getting to lights-out closer Koji Uehara. For at least the first two games, those questions have been put aside.  The Sox pen backed up Friday’s strong showing with an equal performance on Saturday, as the Sox won, 7-4, to take a two-game lead in their best-of-five ALDS against the Rays.
 
Left-hander Craig Breslow was first out of the pen Saturday, replacing starter John Lackey with one out, a runner on first and a run already across the plate in the sixth inning. Breslow retired pinch-hitters Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez to get out of the inning with no further damage.
 
Breslow combined with Junichi Tazawa and Uehara to go 3 2/3 scoreless innings, giving up a walk and hitting a batter (Breslow) and a hit (Tazawa), with two strikeouts (Uehara).
 
After getting out of the sixth, Breslow returned in the seventh. With one out, he hit James Loney with a pitch and walked Evan Longoria, bringing up Ben Zobrist, who had struck out in his two previous at-bats. Facing the left-handed Breslow, the switch-hitting Zobrist was batting from the right side. He hit .290 batting left-handed against righties this season, .250 against lefties. Breslow got Zobrist to ground into a double play – a nifty DP, thanks to Dustin Pedroia – to get out of the inning.
 
“Bres has got such a complement of pitches,” said manager John Farrell. “He reads swings well. And I think more than anything he’s not afraid to not give in. He doesn’t give in. He doesn’t throw a fastball in a fastball count. He can cut it, sink it. That’s the main reason why he’s effective against both [lefties and righties].”
 
Tazawa entered for the eighth. In eight appearances against the Rays this season, he posted a record of 2-0 and a 0.96 ERA, with 11 strikeouts and just one walk in 9 1/3 innings. The odds, it would seem, were on his side. After getting Desmond Jennings to pop out for the first out, he gave up a single to Delmon Young. But another highlight-reel double play started by Pedroia, off the bat of Yunel Escobar, got the Sox out of the inning.
 
In the ninth there was little the Rays could do with Uehara. Before the game, Rays manager Joe Maddon joked that the best way to deal with Uehara is to be sure your team has a sizable lead in the ninth, keeping the Sox shut-down closer in his bullpen.
 
The Rays could not do that on Saturday.
 
Uehara continued his lights-out performance of the regular season, picking up a save with a perfect ninth inning in which he threw 11 pitches, all for strikes. Uehara struck out Joyce, swinging at a 90-mph fastball and Rodriguez on an 82-mph splitter before getting Wil Myers -- who has quickly become Fenway’s favorite whipping boy in these two games – to ground out to Mike Napoli to end the game.
 
“Each guy that came to the mound did a great job,” said Farrell. “Two key double plays, one by Bres in the seventh, another one with Taz against Escobar, who swung well against Junichi over time.”
 
With four days between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason, along with Jon Lester pitching into the eighth inning Friday – needing just one-third of an inning from Tazawa and an inning from Ryan Dempster – Farrell had his bullpen rested and lined up as he wanted.
 
“We were fresh,” he said. “We were ready to go, obviously on the heels of Lester's strong performance last night.  Even if Escobar doesn't roll into that double play, Koji is ready to go for a four‑out save.  But they came in and made some big pitches at key moments.”
 
Except for Wednesday’s intrasquad game, Uehara had noth pitched in a game since Sept. 29 at Balitmore.  He wasn’t sure if that long a layoff would be good for him. [But], de did not show any adverse effects.
 
As he entered the game, and throughout the ninth, the decibel level at Fenway rose with every pitch.
 
“I did hear them,” he said. “But all my focus was on my rhythm.”
 
Before that, though, there was the possibility the game would unfold differently. Uehara and left-hander Franklin Morales were both warming up in the pen. If Tazawa couldn’t get the inning-ending double play in the eighth, Farrell said he likely would have brought in Morales at that point.
 
“If we got in a situation where there was quickly two men on base and Joyce was there, didn't want to push Koji for a six‑out save,” Farrell said. “We were just protecting against maybe a scenario that didn't unfold.”
 
For his fielders, Uehara’s presence in the ninth gives them confidence.
 
“As a defender, it’s a relaxing inning,” Pedroia said. “He always throws strikes. Whatever signal is thrown down, he throws it there. He’s always locating pitches. It’s awesome. We have confidence that he’s got swing-and-miss stuff every pitch he throws and we’re going to win the game.”

For Uehara, in his fifth major league season,  it was his first postseason save in his fifth playoff appearance. After the game, he had a group of Japanese reporters in stitches. He was asked what he said to them.
 
“They wanted me to pitch  seventh, eighth, and ninth innings,” Uehara said.  “But I told them not the seventh.”
 
Instead, he has left his manager searching for new superlatives.
 
“Koji, I don't know, we probably lost or ‑‑ I don't know if you can continue to come up with words to describe him,” Farrell said. “He's been phenomenal.  He throws a 90‑mile‑an‑hour fastball, [but] it looks like it's got the reaction of upper 90s pitch.  That split that he can do multiple things with, throw for a strike, finish a hitter off, and he thrives in moments like tonight.  We've seen it time and time again, regardless if it's a three‑run lead or a seven‑run lead, when he's come in.  It's one of the more comfortable innings when he's on the mound that we'll watch from our dugout.”