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Tazawa coming up big in big situations

Tazawa coming up big in big situations

Tazawa coming up big in big situations

BOSTON -- The role of middle reliever is often a thankless job.

The ninth inning, and the save that often comes with it, contains all the glory.

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But Junichi Tazawa doesn't see it that way. He sees the opportunity to pitch the eighth inning -- or any key inning late in a game -- as a promotion.

"It's my first season that I pitched in a big inning," Tazawa said through a translator after Boston's 6-2 win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday.

When Tazawa entered the game in the seventh inning with the Sox holding a one-run lead, it was his 46th appearance of 2013. The 46 outings equal his overall big league total before this season.

The fact is that the Red Sox -- in part due to three season-ending injuries to members of the bullpen -- have often had to rely on Tazawa in tight spots despite his relative lack on experience in them.

That was readily apparent on Tuesday, when he was sent to face the top four batters of a hot Rays' lineup with no breathing room. A misstep could have sent the Rays -- who were just a half-game behind the Sox in the American League East going into the game -- into first place.

But Tazawa was dominant, first striking out Desmond Jennings with a runner on second to end the seventh, then fanning Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria to start the eighth. After Tazawa retired cleanup hitter Wil Myers -- who had homered and doubled earlier in the game -- to end the inning, the Boston offense scored three runs in the bottom half of the frame on their way to victory.

"That inning right there, the last inning he went in there in the eighth, that's the biggest inning of the game right there, because you're going through the meat of their lineup -- guys have been swinging the bat, a couple [of the] guys have hit homers," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "I put my glove down and away, and he hit it right on the spot. ... That inning right there energized us and got us a couple of runs."

After a bit of a slump before the All-Star break in which he gave up five runs in six innings over one stretch, Tazawa has responded with four consecutive scoreless outings, none more dominating than Tuesday's.

"There was a point, probably, three or four weeks ago, where some fastballs leaked back to the middle of the plate, and I think he was overcompensating by trying to cut the ball a little bit to keep it away from right-handers," manager John Farrell said. "As a result, I think, he got in a little bit of a bad habit to be a little bit tentative, and over the past two or three outings, it's been more 'Trust your stuff and be aggressive,' and we're seeing the velocity come back."

Tazawa said that he was a little mentally fatigued during the stretch, but fellow reliever Koji Uehara offered some advice after noticing that Tazawa's arm angle was getting a little low.

The advice, combined with some rest over the All-Star break, did the trick.

"I wasn't physically [tired], but I was sort of mentally worn down, so Koji and all the others gave me some advice that worked wonders for me," Tazawa said.

The Red Sox were grateful the advice yielded positive results on Tuesday. Tazawa was grateful for the chance.

"I'm just gratified that the manager has been using me in that kind of position," he said.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. Michael Periatt is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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