The Red Sox enjoyed a rare feel-good moment in a September baseball game, a walkoff 4-3 win over the Yankees that gave the team its second victory of the month. Jacoby Ellsbury celebrated his birthday in memorable fashion, collecting four hits (matching a career high) including the decisive one in the bottom of the ninth inning.
But at a time when the team has been reduced to the role of spoiler, there is a prevailing spring training sense to the Sox’ games, in which the outcomes are relatively unimportant except in a) their impact on the team’s draft status for next year and b) what they reveal from a player evaluation standpoint as the Sox try to build for next year.
That being the case, here are the Five Things That Mattered From Tuesday Night’s Red Sox Game:
THE EMERGENCE OF JUNICHI TAZAWA
Because the Red Sox have had few leads to protect, the emergence of Junichi Tazawa as a dominant late-innings pitcher has failed to garner much notice. Nonetheless, he is showing eye-opening stuff that suggests an ability to be a key figure on the pitching staff going forward.
Tazawa was relentless in his attack on the strike zone on Tuesday. He came on in relief of Jon Lester with a runner on second and one out in the top of the sixth inning, and promptly punched out Nick Swisher on three pitches (the last a 90 mph splitter) and then froze Alex Rodriguez for an inning-ending strikeout with a 96 mph fastball on the corner. He then blitzed through a three-up, three-down seventh inning, punctuating his effort with a strikeout of Ichiro, also on a splitter.
In total, the right-hander threw 1 2/3 innings, retiring all five batters he faced and striking out three in just 17 pitches (13 strikes). He continued to show a tremendous mix out of the bullpen -- a fastball that is regularly touching 96-97 mph on the Fenway Park scoreboard, along with a swing-and-miss splitter and a slider -- that he has used to generate some extremely impressive results.
He is throwing better now than at any point in his career. His velocity, which was typically in the low-90s for the most part at the start of his Red Sox career (both in 2009, before he underwent Tommy John surgery, and last year when he returned from the procedure that wiped out his 2010 campaign), is unlike anything he’s ever shown.
“[The fastball] is definitely at least where it was before [the surgery] and … it might be even better than it was before,” said Tazawa (through translator Jeff Cutler). “I hadn’t ever reached that velocity, but it’s two years since I had Tommy John. I’m feeling really strong right now. I guess it’s just from my hard work and persistence.”
In 35 innings this year, Tazawa has 35 strikeouts and just five walks along with a 1.54 ERA. His 7.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio would be the eighth best in Red Sox history by a pitcher who has thrown at least 30 innings in a season.
The 26-year-old, now more than two years removed from his Tommy John surgery, is emerging as a potentially outstanding back-end reliever. He’s showing the best velocity he’s ever had in his life, with an electric power arsenal that can make him a very important Red Sox pitcher going forward.
“As the season’s gone on, he’s gotten stronger and better and better and better,” said Sox pitching coach Randy Niemann. “The fastball’s gone up, the split’s gotten better, he’s added a slider and still throws the curveball, though not very often. The stuff’s just gotten sharper and crisper.”
Given that Tazawa signed with the Sox as a starter, it is fair to ask what his ideal role will be going forward. But while the Sox have an acute need for starters, and will explore questions such as Tazawa’s ultimate role this winter, the likelihood is that the team keeps him in precisely the place where the young right-hander seems so comfortable, confident and overpowering right now.
“I think he’s got closer’s stuff,” said Niemann. “Certainly, I think he could start, but where he’s at, it’s a really good mix, with his velocity, with his split, he’s got end-of-the-game stuff. I think eventually he can work into that. His stuff is closer-type stuff.”
BUT THE SOX HAVE A CLOSER
Andrew Bailey’s night ended when he blew a 96 mph fastball past Alex Rodriguez for a punchout to end the top of the ninth and position the Sox for their walkoff in the bottom of the inning. Though his freak thumb injury at the end of spring training resulted in surgery that cost him the first four months of the year, the 28-year-old has shown a complete complement of pitches -- a mid-90s fastball, cutter and curveball -- in his return that offers the Sox reassurance that, if healthy, he still possesses the repertoire and pedigree to give the team comfort at the end of the game.
Last offseason, the Sox were left to search for a closer. This offseason, such an undertaking will prove unnecessary.
“I feel like my stuff is completely back,” said Bailey. “For me, the thumb's healthy. It doesn't really alter anything. As long as that's fine, everything is there.”
RYAN LAVARNWAY IS GETTING HIS APPRENTICESHIP
When Ryan Lavarnway shows up in spring training in February, few introductions will be necessary. He has now spent plenty of time working with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Andrew Bailey, Tazawa … He has, in fact, worked with 19 pitchers in the big leagues while blowing well past his previous career-high of 70 games caught in a season.
“Today was like the 97th game I caught this year,” Lavarnway stated accurately. “And I’ve got to find a way to catch 120, 130 eventually. This is a great learning experience to grind out at the end of the season. I've done a great job of taking care of my body. Maybe [the fatigue] is more than I notice but I'm not going to complain about it.
“There's no substitute for game experience, especially in pressure situations, important games, whether they happen to be important or not, games that we feel are important.”
Lavarnway has negotiated with Lester on days when he’s been overpowering and, on nights like Tuesday, where he is searching for the right mix, finding ways to navigate through difficulty. He had a key caught stealing in the ninth inning on Tuesday, gunning down pinch-runner Eduardo Nunez.
Lavarnway’s offense since being called up last month has bordered on non-existent. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts on Tuesday, and he’s hitting .161 with a .471 OPS in the big leagues this year.
But his minor league track record over the last four years suggests that there are few questions about whether he will hit in the future. Far more important is the fact that the 25-year-old is currently laying the groundwork to play an important role behind the plate in future years.
PEDRO CIRIACO CONTINUES TO SHOW HIS VALUE
Pedro Ciriaco is one of the most impatient hitters imaginable. In the ninth inning on Tuesday night, he swung and missed at three straight curveballs in the dirt, missing the first two before somehow rolling the third through the left side of the infield for a base hit that set up the game-winning run.
He’s hitting .306, but given his swing-early-and-often approach (he’s walked four times in almost 200 plate appearances), it is virtually impossible to imagine that his average is sustainable. Nonetheless, the 26-year-old is showing the attributes to be a valuable role player.
Ciriaco is showing tremendous defensive abilities while shuttling all over the field. He’s played six positions in the big leagues this year (second, third, short and all three outfield positions) and even though he’s relatively new to third base (entering 2012, he’d played just six professional games at the position), he’s demonstrating the ability to produce dazzling plays at the hot corner.
That was evident on Tuesday, when he made a diving play to his right, jumped to his feet and fired across the diamond to nab Nick Swisher, and later when he made a fantastic barehand play on a swinging bunt by Russell Martin.
“The play he made on the ball down the line, I didn’t think there was any chance he could make that play. And the diving, backhanded play, James [Loney] picking it on the other end, that was a highlight play,” said manager Bobby Valentine. “Ciriaco has played well at third base. For a guy who’s never played there before and we didn’t know if he could. He’s played well, started double plays and has really made that play coming in very well.”
Between his defense, versatility and game-changing speed (which has translated to 11 steals in as many opportunities), Ciriaco is showing a skill set that suggests a potentially valuable reserve. With Ciriaco, Mike Aviles and Ivan De Jesus Jr. all on the roster, the Sox will be working from a position of some depth in terms of utility players with potential trade value.
DUSTIN PEDROIA IS STILL REALLY, REALLY GOOD
Dustin Pedroia is in one of those stretches. He went 3-for-4 with a game-tying solo homer on Tuesday, and in his last 36 games dating to Aug. 6, he’s hitting .367/.426/.609/1.035 with five homers, including three in the last four games.
For much of the year, injuries prevented Pedroia from performing at an elite level. But over the past five-plus weeks, he’s reasserted himself as one of the top second basemen in the league.
The Sox likely didn’t have doubts that the 29-year-old maintained his skill level. All the same, there is reassurance in seeing the on-field evidence of that notion for a team that needs building blocks as it prepares to move forward.
The solo homer was Pedroia’s 15th of the year, giving him 15 homers and 15 steals for the fourth time in his career. He is one of 10 second basemen in big league history to accomplish that feat. The list, which includes three current Hall of Famers and a fourth player (Craig Biggio) who is considered a virtual lock for Cooperstown:
Ryne Sandberg* (8)
Joe Morgan* (8)
Craig Biggio (7)
Ian Kinsler (5)
Brandon Phillips (5)
Alfonso Soriano (5)
Roberto Alomar* (5)
Ray Durham (4)
Juan Samuel (4)
Dustin Pedroia (4)
* - Hall of Famer
BONUS: THE DRAFT UPDATE
With the win, the Sox are 64-78, a record that would have them picking seventh in next year's draft if the season ended today.