KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Red Sox have had a rotating cast of characters pass through their bullpen this season. Injuries and poor performances have led to manager John Farrell patching holes with a variety of pitchers.
But Farrell knows that if he can hand a lead to Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara at the end of the game, they’ll wrap it up.
Tazawa pitched two innings and Uehara continued a brilliant run with another sparkling save Saturday as the Red Sox beat the Kansas City Royals, 5-3, before crowd of 38,742 at Kauffman Stadium.
Jacoby Ellsbury was 4 for 5 with two doubles and two RBIs for the Sox. Will Middlebrooks marked his return to the majors with two hits and two RBIs.
With the Dodgers beating the Rays, the 71-48 Sox now lead the American League East by three games. It’s their largest lead since July 13.
The Sox are 3-3 on their 10-game road trip and need a victory on Sunday to split the series with Kansas City. For the Royals, the loss was only their third in 18 games.
Rookie Brandon Workman (3-1), Craig Breslow, Tazawa, and Uehara worked the final five innings in relief of an erratic Felix Doubront and didn’t allow a run.
“They did an outstanding job,” Farrell said. “Taz and Koji, they’re so efficient. It’s easy to call their name.”
Uehara retired the side in order in the ninth inning for his 12th save, getting two weak grounders and a fly ball.
“Whenever we’re winning, it’s fun,” Uehara said through interpreter C.J. Matsumoto. “Being a closer, you when you’re going to go into the game. That has helped my performance.”
Uehara has not allowed a run over 16 innings. In his last 28 appearances, the 38-year-old righthander has given up one earned run on 10 hits over 29 innings with three walks and 40 strikeouts. Opponents are 10 of their last 96 against him.
“He’s been money,” said Tazawa, who has gone seven innings without allowing a run and has his good fastball back. “I know if I do my job that he’ll end the game.”
Uehara has appeared in 54 games. His next appearance will trigger a clause guaranteeing his contract for next season. That’s just fine with the Red Sox.
“Whether or not people take note nationally, I don’t know. I know how important he is to our team,” Farrell said. “He’s been outstanding.”
Farrell has come to marvel at how Uehara approaches the ninth inning.
“You sit there and you watch him pitch and against a given hitter you almost feel he’s got a sixth sense when he’s on the mound,” the manager said. “When to elevate a fastball to reverse the count, fall behind on purpose to be able to use some of the hitter’s aggressiveness against his split [finger fastball]. He’s just got an exceptional feel for the situation.”
The Red Sox took a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning against Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie.
Mike Carp, the third different No. 5 hitter in as many games, drew a leadoff walk. Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled with one out before Stephen Drew extended his hit streak to 11 games with an RBI double to right field.
Middlebrooks, who was recalled from Triple A Pawtucket earlier in the day, dropped a single down the line in right field that scored two runs.
When Ellsbury doubled to left field, Middlebrooks scored from first base. His first game in the majors since June 20 was joyous.
“It was a good feeling to come back and help us win a game,” Middlebrooks said. “That’s all that really matters.”
Doubront put six runners on base and threw 75 pitches over the first three innings in what appeared to be a touching homage to former Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. But somehow he did not allow a run.
A sketchy shutout came to an end in the fifth inning when the Royals scored three runs.
Doubront walked Alcides Escobar before Eric Hosmer slammed a double to the gap in left field. Billy Butler followed with an RBI double into the right-field corner.
When Alex Gordon singled to left, Farrell finally lifted Doubront, who had thrown 98 pitches.
Workman was put in a tough spot. The Royals had runners on first and third and no outs.
Workman struck out Justin Maxwell on three pitches. Miguel Tejada then singled in a run. But Workman got Mike Moustakas to pop to shortstop before striking out Brett Hayes on three pitches.
“Just trying to execute pitches and get the results take care of themselves,” said Workman, who had never before come in with runners on base. “Every pitch was a crucial pitch.’’
The Red Sox added a run in the sixth inning. Middlebrooks legged out an infield hit with two outs then scored on another double by Ellsbury.
In the latest bit of overly aggressive base running by the Red Sox, Ellsbury was thrown out by several feet going to third base.
That mistake aside, Ellsbury raised his batting average to .305. Combine that with an .806 OPS, 42 stolen bases, and above-average fielding, and his value on the free agent market is trending up.
“Seeing the ball, driving it. Getting some good swings on the ball,” Ellsbury said. “It started in Houston where they tracked down a couple of balls at the wall and then I hit a couple out. I just want good hard contact and I’m satisfied tonight that they fell in for me.”
Workman got one out in the sixth inning before Escobar singled. But Breslow got Hosmer to ground into a double play.
Tazawa allowed doubles in each of his innings but worked around them. Then Uehara needed 12 pitches to end the game. His ERA has dropped to 1.35.
Uehara was told he pitches like a man with somewhere to go.
“It’s just my way,” he said. “When I was a starter in Japan there was a game I finished in two hours. If I did that now, everybody would be able to go to dinner early.”Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.