The big story of the Red Sox bullpen this season has been Koji Uehara -- and it was again Tuesday night. Such is the case when a guy allows his first baserunner in 38 batters, and his first run in 30.1 innings, and it costs his team a chance to clinch a playoff spot.
But had Uehara not yielded a leadoff triple to Danny Valencia, or the subsequent Matt Wieters sacrifice fly, and had the Red Sox punched their ticket to the postseason with another of their patented walkoffs, the story would've been the work of Craig Breslow.
And it's a story that hasn't been spoken of enough, really.
Tuesday night the story would've been Breslow's eighth-inning Houdini act, when he entered with runners on second and third with nobody out in a tie game, and induced a couple of grounders to the drawn-in shortstop and a lazy flyout to escape the heart of the Orioles' order with no damage. On a team that still seems to be trying to figure out which relievers will build the bridge to its brilliant closer, it might quite a case that Breslow could be that guy come October.
But, really, it's a case he's been making all season -- and particularly over the past seven weeks or so.
Because of Uehara's club-record run it's been overlooked, though in 20 appearances since the start of August, Breslow now boasts an earned run average of 0.53. Opponents are hitting just .151 against him over that span, with a .246 on-base percentage and a .491 OPS. In 17 innings, he's yielded just 15 baserunners.
What's remarkable, too, is the efficiency with which he's rendered those results. Uehara's ability to come in and make quick work of opponents has been lauded, and rightfully so. But since Aug. 1, Uehara has needed an average of 4.28 pitches for every out he's recorded. Breslow isn't much worse, at 4.45.
For comparison's sake, the Braves' Craig Kimbrel, widely considered the best closer in the game today, has needed 5.11 pitches per out since the start of last month. The Yankees' Mariano Rivera, widely considered the best closer ever, has needed 5.10.
And in part because of that efficient effectiveness, Breslow has to this point thrown 250 fewer pitches than he did last season -- and 418 fewer than he did in 2010. Couple that with a 1.93 ERA for the season, and it would seem to suggest that one of the Sox' best relievers will be fresh for the playoffs.
"He's been doing that all year," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "He's been one of our top guys out of the pen. We've used him in every situation, and we've used him a lot. That's how he's been all year, and I didn't expect anything different."
Tuesday night the situation required Breslow to butt heads with Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis -- a righty between two lefties -- but the Sox trusted him with all three hitters because he's proven to be more than just a southpaw specialist. Over his career, lefties actual hit Breslow better than righties do (.230-.222), and this season the difference is even more pronounced. Lefties are batting .256 against him; righties are batting .205.
This year he's also been at his best in high-leverage situations, and while he's only been mediocre in terms of stranding inherited runners (he strands 69 percent, the AL average is 70 percent), with 10 games to go in the regular season Breslow at this point appears to have emerged as John Farrell's most trustworthy setup man. Depending on matchups, if the Sox have a late lead the eighth inning might well be his.
That probably wasn't the plan at the start of the year, when he began on the DL and figured to be behind Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan on the late-game depth chart. And it certainly wasn't the plan when Ben Cherington swapped Matt Albers for him at the 2012 trade deadline. That move barely made headlines last July.
But this October, it looks like Breslow will be a big part of how the Red Sox' story ends.
“You look at his career numbers," the manager said, "he’s had a very consistent, very solid career -- this being no different."
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-4, R, RBI, HR: His leadoff homer got the Sox on the board, then he nearly busted the game open in the second, when he scorched a liner with the bases loaded -- but second baseman Brian Roberts leaped to take at least two runs away.|
|Shane Victorino, CF||0-for-3, BB, K: It'd be unfair to say Victorino should've caught Danny Valencia's triple in the ninth, but after racing over to give himself a chance -- he probably should've caught the ball that barely avoided his glove.|
|David Ortiz, DH||0-for-4, 2 K: It was not a good night at the plate for most of the Red Sox, including Ortiz, who struck out twice, grounded into a double play, and bounced into the shift in four trips.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||0-for-2, R, 2 BB: A game after overtaking Mark Bellhorn for the Red Sox' single-season strikeout record, he managed to see 6.5 pitches per plate appearance without K'ing even once. On the flip side, he's walked five times in his past three games.|
|Daniel Nava, RF||0-for-4, K: A whiff and three flyouts dropped his batting average down to .303, moving down to eighth in the American League in that category.|
|Mike Carp, LF||1-for-4, 2B: He whacked a double to the left-field corner in the second inning, but the Sox wasted an opportunity to stretch their early lead, and left him on third.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||1-for-4, R, K, SB: After stealing home on Sunday night, he stole third base on Tuesday. He also reached on an error before scoring in the fourth, then bounced a 37-hop single through the middle in the ninth to give the Sox life against Jim Johnson.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||0-for-2, 2 BB, K, 2 SB: The shortstop now has 40 career steals, though Tuesday night marked the first time in eight big-league seasons that he's swiped two in the same game.|
|Xander Bogaerts, 3B||0-for-2, RBI, BB, K: After Saltalamacchia and Drew put two men in scoring position by stealing third and second, respectively, the rookie did his job and brought in a run with a sacrifice fly to left.|
|Ryan Dempster, SP||6 IP, 2 ER, 3 H, 4 BB, 5 K, HR: It didn't look to be easy for him, and he left with the game tied thanks to Chris Davis' long drive to center, but Dempster still did enough to lower his ERA to 3.09 over his last four starts.|
|Brandon Workman, RP||IP, 2 H, K: The seventh was perfect, then Nate McLouth singled and Manny Machado doubled to start the eighth, and Workman was yanked with Davis due next.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||IP: Though he's 33 and in his eighth major league season, Breslow has never pitched in a playoff game, so there's that unknown come October. But his poise and his Yale pedigree would seem to bode well for him in that situation.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||1 IP, ER, H, K, 3B: Aside from the triple to Valencia, it was a typical appearance from the closer. Twelve pitches, 11 strikes, and a fast inning -- despite surrendering a run for the first time in 30.1 frames.|
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