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Can Junichi Tazawa handle the pressure?

The biggest question is, can Junichi Tazawa pitch the ninth inning? And the only reasonable answer is, we’ll see.
Rick Yeatts/Getty Images
The biggest question is, can Junichi Tazawa pitch the ninth inning? And the only reasonable answer is, we’ll see.

It’s amazing how quickly depth vanishes.

The Dodgers had eight starting pitchers in spring training. Then they lost Zack Greinke, Chad Billingsley, and Ted Lilly to injuries and they traded Aaron Harang.

The Red Sox had two closers. How would that work? Wouldn’t they have to deal one of them?


And then there were none, with Joel Hanrahan Tuesday joining Andrew Bailey on the disabled list.

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The good news here is they still have someone who can take over the job.

He’s Junichi Tazawa, 26, whom the Red Sox got from the Industrial League in Japan while he was pitching for the Nippon Oil corporate team, signing him for $3 million over three years.

He has gotten through Tommy John surgery, and entered Tuesday night’s game against the Twins leading the American League in holds with nine. He’s got terrific stuff, with a fastball that’s consistently at 95 miles per hour and tops off at 97.

When Bailey and Hanrahan are long gone from the Red Sox, Tazawa may have been the closer in the long term, anyway.


The biggest question is, can he pitch the ninth inning? And the only reasonable answer is, we’ll see.

One would think if a reliever can pitch the seventh or eighth and escape a terrible jam, he could protect a three-run lead in the ninth and earn a save. There are guys such as Sergio Romo with the Giants who have converted well to the role. But it’s just one of those strange phenomenons that some guys just can’t do it.

Hanrahan, who went on the disabled list with a forearm strain and inflammation after undergoing an MRI Tuesday, believes Tazawa can do it.

“I think he’s had a little bit of experience of it, so he’ll be fine,” Hanrahan said. “It’s the same as pitching [an earlier] inning. You just got to get three outs. The crowd gets into it a little more that last out. But he’s been throwing the ball really good, so I think he’ll be fine.”

When manager John Farrell told Tazawa he would be pitching the ninth inning, he was fine with it. “He responded as he has most everything,” Farrell said. “Very stoic. Kind of anticipated it somewhat. Much like he pitches. Very much under control. He’s all business. And no different in this situation.


“The one thing he does when we brought him into tight spots, he knows the task at hand and he’s able to channel the adrenaline internally in the right way.

“You don’t see him outwardly balking from a challenge or running from contact. He’s a believer in his abilities and we’re looking forward to having that play out in the ninth inning.”

Tazawa said through his interpreter, “I had always concentrated on the task at hand and that has been my mind-set from the beginning.”

Asked if he’d talk to the other closers, he said, “Some things that I learned just watching them but I haven’t had conversations. Basically it’s just pitching in the last innings. There’s nothing that I really feel different about it. Just that it’s my role and any way that I can help the team win games, that’s what my mind-set is.”

Farrell said he wouldn’t rule out using Tazawa more than one inning, but “preferably not. We’ll see how that unfolds.” It appears to be tied into how rested pitchers such as Koji Uehara and Andrew Miller are.

Hanrahan was more encouraged than not after his MRI results.

“I was kind of nervous where some of the swelling was at [Monday] night,” he said. “I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t nervous about it. They said the ligament was good, so that’s a positive. I don’t think they said anything about needing needles, so that’s always a positive. So we’ll do some things, take some time. Hopefully with a couple days off or a week or two or three, or however long it takes. And hopefully that’ll get it all out of there and come back strong and finish strong.”

Hanrahan said the diagnosis is similar to the 2010 elbow issue he had.

“Yeah, very similar to it,” he said. “I’d pretty much say it’s the same thing. I felt the same before. It’s something that feels a little bit worse.

“But it’s not the end of the world. I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to throw again and be back this year. So it’s nothing that I’m too concerned about. It’s just something that’s going to take time and rest.”

Farrell said Uehara was considered as the closer, but the manager was concerned about overworking the 38-year-old, so the job fell to Tazawa.

Obviously depth will become an issue. The Red Sox will start prospect Allen Webster Wednesday night and Felix Doubront, who has been struggling, will be moved to the bullpen temporarily.

Doubront will join Miller and Craig Breslow as lefties in the pen. Alex Wilson and Clay Mortensen are also out there.

The Sox have Alfredo Aceves, Jose De La Torre, Pedro Beato, Ryan Rowland-Smith, and Chris Carpenter in reserve in the minors if they need more reinforcements. Franklin Morales will pitch a two-inning rehab stint Wednesday and could be available in the not too distant future either as a starter or a reliever.

Farrell made it clear that Doubront’s days as a starter are not over. And the team claims the call-up of Webster has nothing to do with Doubront’s struggles.

“The reason behind that is as we’re going through this couple-day period to somewhat regroup and get our pitching back on track, this was the only way that we could communicate to everyone involved — pitchers — that this would be a concrete plan over the next couple days," Farrell said.

“So Felix will be in the pen today and tomorrow. It’s anticipated at this point that the next time through the rotation Doubront will be back in. He’ll work out of the bullpen for this time through the rotation.”

Baseball bullpens are like revolving doors. You’d better have the inventory to sustain your pen or your team can go into a nosedive in a hurry.

This is a great opportunity for Tazawa. He probably wants to be a starting pitcher again, because that’s what the Red Sox originally signed him to be before his surgery. They feel he has special stuff, and he now will get his chance to show it far sooner than anyone ever thought he would.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.