It had been all of nine days since Koji Uehara took over the Red Sox closing duties, but he already had started to feel like a sure thing.
He got three opportunities to save games and he was successful every time.
It didn’t matter how much — or how little — rest he had.
Manager John Farrell had no issues calling on Uehara to finish games three straight days last week.
In each of those appearances, two against the Blue Jays, Uehara punched out two of the three batters he faced.
When he took the mound Sunday, with the Sox looking to him to make sure a one-run lead stood up, he had retired 14 straight batters.
But he walked right into the most treacherous stretch of the Blue Jays lineup.
He got Jose Reyes to sky to right. Then Jose Bautista stepped to the plate.
Bautista passed on a first-pitch slider, then jumped on the next pitch.
Uehara’s splitter shot off Bautista’s bat like it was spring-loaded, tying the game at 4.
It was his first blown save, the first time he had been anything other than automatic, but once the ball bounced off the Sports Authority sign above the Green Monster, there was nothing he could do about it. He he still had two more outs to get.
“When you’re facing a premium power hitter like that, a ball up in the zone can go a long way,” said Sox starter Ryan Dempster. “I know that from personal experience facing him. The key is not necessarily what happens there but what happens after that.”
After giving up a single to Edwin Encarnacion, Uehara fanned Josh Thole and got Rajai Davis to line to second.
“He did a great job turning the page,” said catcher Ryan Lavarnway. “That could have snowballed really easily, especially with Encarnacion, who’s also a very powerful hitter, a dangerous hitter, coming up next. But Koji battled, he kept us right there, and then we only needed one.””
Going into the bottom of the ninth, the game was still Boston’s for the taking. And even if it wasn’t via the most conventional method, take it the Sox did.
With runners on first and second, and the Sox looking for a walkoff, Shane Victorino ripped a ground ball to the right side. It was too hot for Thole, Toronto’s first baseman, and as it bounced off him and onto the outfield grass for an error, pinch runner Jonathan Diaz raced around to score the deciding run in Boston’s 5-4 win.
Victorino had been having a day to forget at the plate. And even with his game-winning rip, he still finished 0 for 5.
But none of it — not Victorino’s 0-fer, not Uehara’s blown save — mattered as much as the way the Sox figured out ways to overcome it.
The win gave the Sox 50 by July for just the fourth time in franchise history and the first time since 2008. They are the first team to reach 50 in the American League.
No. 50 was the kind in which the contributions had to come from all over.
Lavarnway and Jonny Gomes both came up with run-scoring doubles (Lavarnway’s a quirky ground-ruler in the second that bounced off the warning track in right and into the stands, Gomes’s a drive off the Monster in the fifth), and Daniel Nava went 2 for 4 with a run.
Recent call-up Brandon Snyder went 2 for 4 with a two-run double in the second, and his one-out single in the ninth was what lit the pilot light on the rally.
“Any way you can get it done,” Victorino said. “At the end of the day, I’ll take an 0 for 5 with a walkoff win.”
With 83-degree heat pounding down on him, Dempster lasted just 5⅓ innings, his shortest outing in more than a month.
“It was hot out there,” Dempster said. “They did a good job in the fourth inning of running some pitches up. So it can take a toll on you. You just try to go out there and go as deep as you can no matter what the conditions are.”
He gave up seven hits and twice found himself in jams with runners in scoring position.
In the sixth, Dempster was in a bases-loaded, one-out jam when Farrell came to take the ball. Dempster tried to talk him out of it.
With Maicer Izturis at the plate, Dempster said, “I told him that I could get him out.”
Farrell told Dempster, he knew he could, but so could Craig Breslow.
Breslow came on and got Izturis to pop to short before getting a strikeout against pinch hitter Emilio Bonifacio that kept the Sox’ 4-2 lead intact.
“That’s a situation where you hate to put that on anybody coming in there and Breslow came in there, made some big pitches, and got out of that unscathed,” Dempster said.
With the Sox off Monday, Farrell didn’t hesitate to go to his bullpen.
After Breslow gave up a leadoff homer to Reyes in the seventh, Farrell called on righthander Alex Wilson to pitch to power-hitting righties Bautista and Encarnacion. Bautista tagged Wilson for a single, but Wilson got Encarnacion to pop up along the first base line. With the righties out of the way, Farrell called on lefty Andrew Miller, who sawed through the two hitters he faced, striking out Thole swinging and Davis looking.
“Those guys did one heck of a job,” Farrell said of his bullpen.
The Sox were able to pull together their seventh walkoff win of the season and in the process cool off a Blue Jays team that was among the hottest in baseball.
“Don’t doubt us,” Victorino said. “A lot of people doubted this team, but this team reminds me of some of the winning teams that I played on. The resiliency, playing 27 outs no matter how many runs you’re down.
“That’s the kind of stuff that’s what’s important and to me what’s made the team what we are.”