- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Needing a closer a month ago when both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were hurt, John Farrell settled on Junichi Tazawa, an assignment that lasted just a few days until Bailey came back from a biceps tendinitis injury.
With Bailey now pitching his way out of the job, Farrell announced Friday in Detroit that the team is turning to Koji Uehara, who has previous closing experience in both Japan and in the big leagues, having saved 13 games for a noncontending Orioles team in 2010.
Even at 38, Uehara has been outstanding for the Sox, locking down the eighth inning on a regular basis for the Sox. Opposing hitters are just 3-for-30 (.100) in June against Uehara, who has 42 strikeouts and 7 walks and this month answered any questions about his ability to pitch on back-to-back days by doing so twice, most recently last weekend in Baltimore, when he struck out the side last Saturday after pitching the day before.
Uehara is like a right-handed version of former Sox lefty Hideki Okajima, a big part of the 2007 World Series winners, a strike thrower who is not overpowering but locates his splitter with deadly effectiveness.
Still, his age and injury history -- Uehara missed 67 games last season with a strained shoulder, and the Sox have been careful in how they've used him -- argue that Uehara will only be a short-term answer. That may be all the Sox, who are banking on Bailey to regain his form, are looking for.
But if doubts linger on Bailey, and the load proves daunting to Uehara, Boston's best option is to turn again to Tazawa, only this time the stakes could be considerably higher for the 27-year-old Japanese right-hander. While it was understood his assignment was strictly a provisional arrangement the last go-round, this time Tazawa should be given the chance to seize the job and never give it back.
He has the stuff, the makeup and -- most importantly -- the backbone to handle the job. He demonstrated his ability to handle pressure when he was still a kid and defied the entire Japanese baseball establishment, telling the pro teams in his country not to bother to draft him and signing with the Red Sox instead.
This, remember, was a guy who went undrafted out of high school and cut his teeth pitching for Nippon Oil, a team in a Japanese industrial league. Then he comes to a new country alien to him in every way -- no friends, different language, different food, different rhythms -- blows out his arm and misses a year because of Tommy John surgery, is converted from starter to reliever, and proceeds to dazzle once healthy and in the big leagues.
So, no, handling the stress that comes with last call is unlikely to be an issue. He did leave a tiny seed of doubt when he hung a slider that Adam Lind of the Blue Jays hit for a tiebreaking home run on May 11, when the ninth inning was his.
With runners in scoring position, Tazawa has held opposing hitters to an .088 average (3-for-34). He has struck out 38 batters while walking just 3 this season.
In virtually every significant way you can judge a pitcher, Tazawa scores high, according to ESPN Stats & Information:
-- First-pitch strikes, 64 percent
-- Two-strike at-bats becoming outs: 77 percent
-- Off-speed pitches chased: 39 percent
-- Swing and miss percentage: 21 percent
-- Four pitch or less plate appearances: 66 percent
-- Percentage of outs even after falling behind 2-and-0, 2-and-1 and 3-ball counts: 71 percent
-- Percentage of runners who score: 12 percent
He averages just under 94 mph on his fastball and can touch 97; he has a terrific splitter, and he also mixes in both a slider and curveball. The stuff is there. So is the confidence. And the results will follow, it says here, which is why folks should hold off on the fantasy of reacquiring Jonathan Papelbon, who, incidentally, blew his first two saves of the season this week.
Can anyone say with absolute certainty that Tazawa will succeed? Of course not. But it's worth finding out, especially where teams have a pretty good track record of discovering closers within their own ranks. That includes the Sox, once upon a time, with Papelbon.
There are other options, too. Six-foot-seven Andrew Miller has been spectacular, striking out better than 14 batters per nine innings while holding right-handed hitters to a .149 average (7-for-47), which represents a huge step in his progression, but the 14 walks in 26 innings remain a red flag.
Craig Breslow has limited closer's experience, but lacks the same swing-and-miss potential of the others and is of more value to the Sox as a multiple-innings option.
The Sox commitment to Bailey as closer was only skin-deep to begin with; the plan coming into this season was for Hanrahan to close, Ben Cherington's stated intent the day he acquired Hanrahan from the Pittsburgh Pirates. That plan blew up when Hanrahan's elbow did; chances are that after undergoing Tommy John surgery, he's thrown his last pitch for the Red Sox.
It may well be that the best-case scenario is that Bailey, whose fastball registers only a tick slower than it did before he was hurt but hasn't shown what Farrell describes as a "second gear," regains his form while pitching in a setup role and reclaims his old job. But when Tazawa gets another chance -- and that day will come -- don't be surprised if the job becomes his for keeps.