Craig Breslow could have agreed to a one-year contract with the Red Sox last winter, played out the season, and become a free agent. A lefthanded reliever with a track record of efficiency and durability would not have lacked for options.
But Breslow decided instead to take a two-year, $6.25 million deal from the Red Sox, agreeing to the deal in January.
It was a leap of faith at the time given that the Sox were coming off a last-place season. Breslow had not played for new manager John Farrell or worked under new pitching coach Juan Nieves. The Sox also had added a large and eclectic group of new players.
Breslow had several pragmatic reasons for the decision. The two-year deal offered both a raise and some element of security. It also afforded him a chance to play close to his Connecticut home.
Breslow also believed the Red Sox would return to contention.
“I was comfortable with the team and the direction they were taking,” he said last week. “If any team had a chance to turn it around quickly, it was this one. There has always been a commitment to winning.”
But Breslow could not have imagined the Red Sox winning 97 games, then brushing aside the Tampa Bay Rays in four games to advance to the American League Championship Series.
The team he took a chance on is now four wins away from the World Series.
Breslow played a decisive role in Game 4 of the Division Series, getting five outs in the late innings of a 3-1 victory. Pitching with no margin for error, he left a runner stranded in the sixth inning then struck out the side in the seventh after the Red Sox took a 2-1 lead.
Breslow got the first out in the eighth inning before handing the lead to Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara to protect. In all, Breslow struck out four of the six batters he faced.
Breslow then gleefully joined the champagne and beer celebration in the clubhouse. As he stood talking to reporters with goggles dangling from his neck and beer draining down his neck, Breslow did not have the look of a 33-year-old man who graduated from Yale with degrees in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.
But Breslow — who, yes, did grow a beard — is more than just the smartest man in baseball. He was third on the team with 61 appearances and pitched 59⅔ innings in the regular season, allowing only 49 hits.
“He’s been, I don’t want to say an unsung hero, but he’s flown under the radar most of the year,” manager John Farrell said. “Next to Koji, he’s a very dependable reliever.”
Breslow pitched more than an inning only 14 times during the regular season and Tuesday night marked only the second time that an appearances was spread over three innings.
“He was huge for us,” said David Ross, who caught the final three innings. “Brez, the guy competes. He was giving everything he had on those pitches. Did you see him scream after the seventh inning? He was fired up.”
Breslow was more refined when discussing his night.
“My goal was just to get guys out. It wasn’t to strike guys out,” he said. “Trying to keep the ball on the ground as much as I could. And for whatever reason I was able to get ahead. And before the ball was put in play I was able to get in strikeouts.”
Red Sox pitchers had a 3.03 earned run average in the Division Series, holding the Rays to 12 runs. Jake Peavy allowed one run over 5⅔ innings Tuesday night before Breslow replaced him in the sixth inning.
“We’ve had good starting pitching. We’re as good as our starting pitching is,” Breslow said. “We’ve been able to keep our guys close and the offense has been able to grind out at-bats and put some runs on the board.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be a simple series. We were able to win those two games at home and come down here and just need to win one. This is not a friendly place to play. I think we’re fortunate not to have the series go all five games.”
The Sox will face the Athletics or Tigers in Game 1 of the ALCS Saturday. Detroit is at Oakland for Game 5 of that Division Series Thursday night.
The Sox were 3-3 against Oakland this season and 3-4 against Detroit.
For Breslow and the Red Sox, finishing in last place seems a lot longer than just a year ago.
“At this point it really doesn’t do any good to kind of look at where we were,” he said. “I think independent of kind of where we were, when we had guys come to spring training, everybody bought in. There’s accountability, and 25 guys who prioritize winning baseball games, beyond any kind of individual achievement or accolade.
“The accountability in that clubhouse is pretty amazing. The word resiliency is a word that continues to come up. That’s been the trend all season. On any given night it could be a different guy who contributes, and [Tuesday] I would say it was 25 guys who contributed.”Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.