First pitch: Tazawa a revelation for Red Sox

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First pitch: Tazawa a revelation for Red Sox

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- September is supposed to be a month for evaluations, a time to take stock of how far prospects have come and how far they have to go.

In the case of the Red Sox, two of their most important pieces -- catcher Ryan Lavarnway and shortstop Jose Iglesias -- have struggled more than they've starred.

Iglesias, who has been brilliant in the field at times, has just two hits in more than 30 plate appearances while Lavarnway has, at times, appeared overmatched both defensively and offensively.

Then, there is the case of Junichi Tazawa.

Tazawa is not as inexperienced as Iglesias and Lavarnway are, of course, having first pitched in the big leagues in 2009. But that was before Tommy John surgery cost him all of 2010 and a chunk of 2011, too, sidelining his career before it got started.

In the second half of the season, however, the 26-year-old has been a relevation. Monday night, in the Red Sox' 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, Tazawa came in for the seventh and retired the side in order, two by stirkeouts.

In 30 games this year -- most since Aug. 1, his third stint with the club this season -- Tazawa has a 1.43 ERA, and a tidy 1.06 WHIP. He's averaged more than a strikeout per inning and showed impeccable control, walking just five in 37 23 innings.

And the more he's pitched, the more dominant he's been. Over his last eight appearances, he's allowed just two baserunners -- a single and a walk, with 14 strikeouts over 7 23 scoreless innings. In each of his last four appearances, he's had multiple strikeouts and has allowed no more than one baserunner. Dating back to 2003, the only other Red Sox pitcher
to have such a run of dominance was Jonathan Papelbon.

Of the last 40 hitters Tazawa has faced, he's fanned 19 of them.

"You can't throw a ball any better than he's throwing it," said Bobby Valentine. "It's impossible to throw it better -- it really is."

His velocity has not only rebounded from the elbow surgery; it's actually gotten better. Once, Tazawa's fastball was regularly in the low 90s; now, he is routinely in the mid-90s.

"The confidence is definitely there, along with some good nerves,'' said Tazawa. "Each at-bat, I focus on each pitch, each at-bat and the results have been good. Before I had Tommy John, my elbow used to just swell up a little bit, and I wasn't able to throw the way I wanted to. I wasn't hitting the velocity I knew I was capable of.

"Right now, I think I'm finally starting to pitch the way I want to, reach the velocity I want to and the results have been there."

Tazawa's dominance has resulted in Valentine using him in more high-leverage spots. Often, he's been the seventh inning set-up option, used an inning before Vicente Padilla is entrusted with the eighth.

Monday night, after Rich Hill tossed a scoreless inning in relief of starter Aaron Cook, it was Tazawa who got the eighth.

His work this year may make him an integral part of the 2013 bullpen, but he's taking nothing for granted about his future.

"My role to be prepared whenever I'm called upon,'' he said. "I don't worry about when I'm throwing. I'm more worried about just being prepared whenever it is. I haven't really thought about next season yet. I'm more focused on finishing this season strong and being prepared whenever I'm called upon this season."

Tazawa, who started in Japan and did so again briefly when he first reached the big leagues with the Red Sox, said he'd be open to going back to the rotation, but said that is still to be determined.

"I just came back and I'm still proving myself right now," Tazawa said. ''It's just focusing on the task I'm given at the moment and make sure I produce the results that the team is expecting from me."

New photo surfaces of noticeably thinner Pablo Sandoval

New photo surfaces of noticeably thinner Pablo Sandoval

When it comes to Pablo Sandoval and his weight, a picture is worth a thousand words.

During spring training it wasn’t a good thing. Sandoval made headlines when a number of photos revealed significant weight gain for the Red Sox third baseman.

But the last two images have been more positive for Sandoval.

In October, a noticeably thinner Sandoval was photographed at an FC Barcelona game.

On Monday, Dan Roche of WBZ tweeted a more recent picture of the new-look Sandoval.

Sandoval, 30, is entering the third season of a five-year, $95 million contract. In his lone full season in Boston, 2015, Sandoval hit .245/.292/.366 with 10 homers and 47 RBI.

Red Sox taking stricter luxury tax penalties into consideration this offseason

Red Sox taking stricter luxury tax penalties into consideration this offseason

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The newly agreed upon Major League Baseball collective bargaining agreement features higher taxes and additional penalties for exceeding the competitive balance threshold -- and don't think the Red Sox haven't noticed.

The Red Sox went over the threshold in both 2015 and 2016, and should they do so again in 2017, they would face their highest tax rate yet at 50 percent. Additionally, there are provisions that could cost a team in such a situation to forfeit draft picks as well as a reduced pool of money to sign its picks.

None of which means that the Red Sox won't definitively stay under the $195 million threshold for the upcoming season. At the same time, however, it remains a consideration, acknowledged Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.

"You would always like to be under the CBT (competitive balance tax) if you could,'' offered Dombrowski. "And the reason why is that are penalties attached for going over, so nobody likes to (pay) penalties.

"However, the Red Sox, if you follow history, have been up-and-down, right around that number. We were over it last year and the year before that. So I would prefer (to be under in 2017). However, a little bit more driving force in that regard is that there are stricter penalties now attached to going over. And some of them involve, for the first time, differences in draft choices and sacrificing money to sign players and that type of thing. So there's a little bit more drive (to stay under).

"But I can't tell you where we're going to end up. Eventually, does it factor (in)? Yeah. But until we really get into the winter time and see where we are, will I make an unequivocal (statement about staying under the CBT)? Maybe we won't. But there are penalties that I would rather not be in position to incur.''

Dombrowski stressed that he's not under a "mandate'' from ownership to stay under the CBT.

"But I am under an awareness of the penalties,'' he said. "Last year, I would have preferred to be under, too, but it just worked for us to be above it, because we thought that would be the best way to win a championship at the time.''

He added: "I think we're going to have a good club either way.''

But it's clear that the CBT is part of the reason the Red Sox aren't being more aggressive toward some premium free agents such as first baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion, who is said to be looking for at least a four-year deal at an annual average value of more than $20 million.

Currently, the Red Sox have nearly $150 million in guaranteed contracts for 2017, plus a handful of arbitration-eligible players, some of whom (Drew Pomeranz, Jackie Bradley Jr.) will see significant raises.

Together, with insurance premiums and others costs tallied, the Sox stand at nearly $180 million, just $15 million under the 2017 tax.

"I've said all along I've wanted to stay away from long-term contracts for hitters at this point,'' Dombrowski said of the current free agent class, "(especially) with some of the guys we have in our organization coming. I just haven't felt that that's a wise thing to do.''

The Sox saw two potential DHs come off the board over the weekend, with Carlos Beltran signing a one-year $16 million deal with Houston and Matt Holliday getting $13 million from the Yankees. Either could have filled the vacancy left by David Ortiz's retirement, but Dombrowski would also be taking on another another eight-figure salary, pushing the Sox well past the CBT.

"I figured we would wait to see what ends up taking place later on,'' said Dombrowski, "and see who's out there.''