If Junichi Tazawa needed a reminder of how crucial the moment was in the eighth inning of the Red Sox Division Series-clinching win over the Rays, all he had to do was look to his right.
The Red Sox had just rallied to go up by a run on the Rays, and manager John Farrell needed his relievers to make sure that lead held up.
Farrell, who had been playing a high-stakes strategy game with Rays manager Joe Maddon all series, had Tazawa up and throwing, just waiting on the right matchup.
But on the mound next to Tazawa, Koji Uehara was starting to get loose.
Tazawa was brought in with one out to face Matt Joyce, and fanned him on five pitches.
Then Farrell tapped his right arm again, signaling for Uehara to come on with two outs and one on, and the message was subtle but clear. For Uehara to get a chance to do his job, Tazawa has to do his.
Tazawa had no issues. His plank in the bridge to Uerhara, who would work four outs for the save, was part of the reason the Sox were able to shut the door on the Rays.
Farrell called on Tazawa in all four games in the Division Series, and in his first ever postseason, Tazawa was nearly untouchable.
In 2⅓ scoreless innings, he faced seven batters, gave up just one hit, and came through with two critical strikeouts.
As the Sox head for their first American League Championship Series since 2008, the lights will only get brighter, but Tazawa is embracing it.
“There’s a little bit of additional pressure, just because the stage is a little bit bigger,” Tazawa said through Red Sox interpreter C.J. Matsumoto. “But it’s something that I can enjoy, and I’m enjoying it.”
Over the course of the ALDS, it became increasingly clear that Tazawa was one of the arms Farrell will be relying on in the postseason. Tazawa combined with Craig Breslow and Uehara to record 27 outs, anchoring a bullpen that gave up just two runs in the series. Together, they accounted for nine of the 11 innings of relief duty.
“Any time you get three or four guys you can work into the mix to close out games, you can’t ever understate the importance,” Farrell said. “And Junichi along with Craig Breslow and Koji, for obvious reasons, those guys are going to be leaned on heavily and they were in that first series.”
In all but one of his appearances, Tazawa came in with someone on and made sure to leave all runners stranded. It’s been a strength throughout the season.
In 21 of his 71 appearances, he entered the game with runners on. In 118 at-bats with men on, opponents hit just .203 off Tazawa. Only 11 of the 35 runners he inherited scored.
“The difference is that when there’s a runner on, I feel a little bit more pressure to not let that runner score because it’s going to affect the ERA on the pitcher that left the runner,” Tazawa said. “But either way, I try to do my best and do my job.”
After Tazawa hit a rough patch in the second half of the season, it was difficult to say how he would respond in the playoffs. He gave up six runs on 10 hits in 11 September appearances. His 6.48 ERA for the month nearly doubled his highest mark for any other month (3.29 in June).
“Despite some inconsistencies in the second half of the year, we never lost confidence in him,” Farrell said. “There might have been a couple of pitches that were mislocated over a period of time, but the stuff, I thought, the stuff, the power to his fastball had maintained itself throughout the second half.”
So far in the postseason, Tazawa’s job description has been very narrowly defined. In three of his four outings, he faced two batters or one.
In Game 1, with the Sox already running away with things and Jon Lester done after 7⅔ innings, Tazawa came in and fired three fastballs to Wil Myers. The first two were 93 miles per hour. The last was 94. Myers flied to right.
“His fastball, he’s got games where it’s 92 and then some games it’s 96,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “I think it’s just a matter of how he’s feeling and how much he’s worked. I think him going out there and getting one hitter as opposed to going an inning and a half or two innings has helped.
“You want to get his confidence up, and going out there and getting a big out like he did at home and then on the road, I think we’ve put him in really good situations and he’s feeling pretty good right now.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.