BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox were so consistent this season that there was rarely an opportunity to severely criticize one area or another. A bad start? The next three or four will be just fine. The bats went cold? They'll heat up tomorrow.
In pursuit of some way to knock the club, many wondered how the bullpen would perform once the postseason rolled around. A rocky seventh inning? A blown lead in the eighth? Well, what did you expect?
In reality, the worries were somewhat unfounded, or at least based only on the fact that the bridge to the final out has required constant tinkering due to a spate of season-ending injuries at the back end of the pen. For the most part, the bridge has remained stable, even if awkward in its makeup. And the early returns on the pen's performance in the playoffs are outstanding after a shutdown effort for the ages in a 7-4 triumph over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 2 of the American League Division Series.
After John Lackey rocked and rolled through 5 1/3 so-so frames, giving up four runs on seven hits, Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa spanned the gap to Koji Uehara, who turned the ninth inning into an exhibition in efficiency.
"They came in and made some big pitches at key moments," Red Sox manager John Farrell said.
Breslow was first, looking to build upon a second half in which he posted a 0.65 ERA, stranding a runner left behind by Lackey to end the sixth and then getting Ben Zobrist to ground into an inning-ending double play in the seventh.
"It was a great situation," he said.
History repeated itself in the eighth, when Tazawa got Yunel Escobar to bounce into a twin killing, once again pumping up the crown of 38,705 on hand. Neither guy was perfect, but the two-run lead they were charged with protecting was never in serious jeopardy. And by the time Uehara entered, victory and a 2-0 series lead was a mere formality. Uehara threw six straight strikes to fan the first two hitters and got ahead 0-2 on Wil Myers before inducing a grounder to first to end it.
The roar grew louder with each pitch thrown by Uehara, reaching deafening levels after the second strikeout. Scribes in the press box were seen shaking their heads at the futility of the Rays hitters.
"Man, how loud was that? That was amazing. It was so much fun," catcher David Ross said. "I just wanted to look up in the stands and take that all in for a minute. This crowd. The first strikeout was loud, the second strikeout was loudest I've ever heard. It was rocking. I don't know how Koji was catching his emotions. ... Throws his heater, he paints it. Throws the splitter, it just disappears."
If one needs further proof that Farrell, who is really the only one who matters in this situation, has confidence in the formula, look no further than his insistence to stick with Breslow and Tazawa and resist the urge to race his way to the dominant Uehara for a six-out save, or more. Farrell stressed before the game that the well-rested Uehara would likely get a chance to go multiple innings in a tight game. When Breslow walked a man and hit another in the seventh, it may have been too soon to go to the closer, but Farrell stayed away from Tazawa then, thus lengthening Breslow's stint, and then stayed with Tazawa when the righty allowed a base hit with one out in the eighth.
Of course, when the defense behind the mound is what it is on the Red Sox, there is confidence that just one pitch is necessary to escape a jam, as was the case with the 4-6-3 double plays in the seventh and eighth.
"Maybe because the guys aren't the flashiest it often gets overlooked, but they make all the routine plays and then some," Breslow said. "You feel so confident that as soon as the ball hits the ground you feel that's going to be converted into an out."
Or two. And once that second double play came and went, and David Ortiz added some insurance with his second home run in the bottom of the eighth to make it 7-4, it was all but over. Uehara was not to be had.
"I don't know if you can continue to come up with words to describe him," Farrell said. "He's been phenomenal. ... We've seen it time and time again, regardless if it's a three-run lead or a seven-run lead, when he's come in. It's one of the more comfortable innings when he's on the mound that we'll watch from our dugout."
Pedroia agreed, calling it "a relaxing inning."
And with that relaxing inning, the Sox have a comfortable lead in the series and confidence that the bridge is secure.