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."