- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Craig Breslow had faced one batter, throwing just six pitches, which was sufficient to get the job done, an inning-ending double play.
A visitor playfully asked whether Breslow had ever contemplated, as he made his way from Yale through the progression that ultimately led to the big leagues, that he would derive satisfaction from a job in which throwing just six pitches would be considered a good night's work?
Breslow smiled, and answered in the same spirit as the question was delivered.
"At that point," he said, "I think I was hoping that someone, somewhere, would let me throw six pitches."
Monday's news, first reported by Alex Speier of WEEI.com, that when the Red Sox signed Koji Uehara to a one-year deal last winter, they quietly departed from standard operating procedure and added a stand-alone vesting option for 2014 -- no player option, no club option, just another $4.25 million next season if he pitched a certain number of times -- only underscored how Uehara's signing has been one of the master strokes of Ben Cherington's still-nascent career as a general manager.
Given how dominating Uehara has been as Sox closer of necessity after season-ending injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey -- and has there been a bigger decision made by manager John Farrell this season than choosing Uehara? -- Red Sox brass has to be giddy that he remains under their control for another season, and for the same money as his original Sox contract.
But in the midst of all the drama surrounding the Sox pen -- the closers going down, Daniel Bard unraveling, Andrew Miller emerging as a force only to be lost, too, to a season-ending injury, the trade for Matt Thornton, Junichi Tazawa seizing the eighth-inning setup role, the conga line of kids who have come up and helped (Alex Wilson, Drake Britton, Brandon Workman, Pedro Beato and Rubby De La Rosa) -- the retaining of another reliever has quietly proven as essential as the addition of Uehara, in an elegantly understated way.
Call it a hunch, but we suspect there are many of you who would be shocked to discover that since he recovered from a bout of shoulder tendonitis that cost him the first month of the season, Craig Breslow has made more appearances than any Sox pitcher.
And it's more than just showing up. Of his 41 appearances this season, Breslow has held the opposition scoreless 33 times. He hasn't allowed a run in his last eight appearances, only 1 run in his last 12.
He has pitched as early as the fourth inning, as late as the 12th, mostly in the seventh or eighth. He has pitched on back-to-back occasions 11 times, multiple innings 15 times. He comes in to start a clean inning, and also has been summoned with men on base 14 times. He has thrown as few as 4 pitches in an appearance, and as many as 43, which he did while recording one of his three wins, 11-8 against the Mariners.
Left-handed specialist? Hardly. He has faced more right-handed hitters (98 plate appearances) than lefties (74) and actually has posted reverse splits (.225 vs. righties, .309 vs. lefties). Only one of each has taken him deep this season. With runners in scoring position, he has allowed just one extra-base hit in 43 plate appearances.
At first glance, there's nothing exotic about Breslow in the pecking order of the Sox pen. He's not Japanese, like Uehara and Tazawa, nor does he feature a trick pitch like Uehara's splitter. He's not a towering presence who throws high heat like Miller, a brawny Texan like Workman, or a kid setting foot on the big stage for the first time, like Britton.
There is the Ivy League pedigree and the degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, though in the eighth inning of a tie game in Fenway that degree is less useful than the rosin bag.
All he does, this 33-year-old left-hander who once was released in Single A ball by the Brewers, was purchased for $1 by the Padres from an independent league team, and made little impression on the Sox his first go-round -- spending the World Series summer of 2007 in Pawtucket and coming back to Boston in a little-noticed trade-deadline deal with Arizona last July, is get people out on a regular basis.
The stuff might not dazzle -- a changeup and cutter he trusts throwing on any count, a sinker when he needs a groundout, a fastball that has added a little hop due to his dedicated offseason training regimen -- but it has proven dependable.
"One of the things that speaks to the success I've had is my versatility," he said. "I think that's evidenced by the fact that I can come in and face a lefty, throw four or five pitches and get a ground ball, or throw parts of three innings at other points."
Breslow credits the front office for stockpiling enough pitching, and developing enough big-league-ready talent, to not only withstand the high attrition rate, but thrive despite it.
"Sure, it would be nice to think what might have been if Hanrahan was closing and Bailey was throwing the eighth and Koji was throwing the seventh and Taz was throwing," Breslow said. "I might not have been able to pitch. Miller and I would have been matching up in the second and third.
"You have to credit the front office for a, identifying talent, and b, not trading it away."
Breslow is as impressed as everyone else by Uehara but not surprised by the numbers he is putting up: 12 saves, a current 16-inning scoreless streak, a strikeout ratio of 12.5 per nine innings, an 0.69 WHIP (walks and hits per inning).
"How much do you have to acknowledge the fact that the reason Koji was never a closer, he never had the opportunity," Breslow said, referring to Uehara's career track since coming from Japan, where he did close near the end of his career with Yomuiri. It wasn't that he was tried as a closer and failed.
"You look at this guy's track record, he's always been really good. Dominant. He's not 6-foot-5 and throws 96, so he doesn't scream 'closer.' But when you don't walk guys, keep the ball in the park, strike guys out, I would argue that you could close."
There is another dimension to Uehara's game that Breslow marvels at.
"I don't know if he's reading swings or what," Breslow said, "but it seems like invariably he throws a fastball and the guy is sitting on a split and he throws a split and the guy's sitting on a fastball.
"It's like, 0-and-0, the most aggressive guy in the lineup, he throws fastball middle middle and the hitter is taking all the way. How do you know that? The number of times he's frozen guys or beat guys with fastballs with two strikes is pretty remarkable.
"It's kind of like he's got this sense of what a hitter is looking to do in a given situation. I also think he controls his split so well to both sides of the plate and can manipulate it so well, that what he loses in separation [of speed] he gains in command."
But for all the wonders of Uehara, it would all be for naught if Farrell did not have reliable options to serve as bridge to the ninth inning. Craig Breslow has been one. And like Uehara will be after he makes his next appearance, he is locked in for next season, too, having signed a two-year, $6.25 million deal.
A good way to make a living?
Born in New Haven, Conn., a high school star in Trumbull and All-Ivy at Yale, Breslow smiles again at the question.
"I think I had a feeling that being successful in this game could be as satisfying or more satisfying than anything else I'd like to be doing," said Breslow, whose fallback option at one point was medical school. "To end up doing this in August for a first-place team, the Boston Red Sox no less, after growing up in New England, I think when you look at the totality of all of that, maybe it exceeded my expectations."
Yale grad Craig Breslow is quietly acing his assignments as Red Sox reliever.